Brace yourselves, parents: The messier a child gets while eating, the more he or she is learning. And it's not just how messy the child gets that matters, but also where he or she eats, according to new research from the University of Iowa.
In a study published Monday in the journal Developmental Science, researchers examined how well 16-month-old children learned the names of nonsolid foods and other objects while in a highchair, as opposed to sitting at a table. Typically, the researchers said, it is more difficult for children to learn the names of nonsolid objects because they have no consistent shape.
"This study shows the cascading influence that the context of everyday activities – such as mealtimes – has on children's exploration, attention, and word learning," the study says. "When young children messily eat and explore food at each meal, they are learning both about individual foods and also about nonsolid substances more generally."
The researchers, led by Larissa Samuelson, an associate professor of psychology at the university, exposed the children to different substances, such as applesauce, pudding, juice and soup, and gave them made-up names, such as "dax" or "kiv."
When the researchers put the same objects out in different sizes or shapes and asked the children to identify them, the ones who more enthusiastically explored the materials by poking, throwing and picking them up, were more likely to correctly identify them. Additionally, the children seated in a highchair were more likely to correctly identify objects than those seated at a table.
Because such substances don't have a consistent shape and size, both the material of the object and the context in which the child interacts with it (in this case, in a highchair) are critical, the researchers said.
"It turns out that being in a high chair makes it more likely you'll get messy, because kids know they can get messy there," Samuelson said in a statement.
The researchers said the study's findings also have significance in other areas of learning, such as directing attention.
The results show how different environments play a role in children's learning. Just as a highchair may be more appropriate than a table for children to learn about nonsolid objects, a desk may be more conducive to learning in a math class, and a stool and easel may work best for a student in a painting class.
Attention to consistency and material is important in one setting, for example, while attention to shape and size is important in many others. Children who have trouble directing their attention may need the contextual support of a certain environment to help them do so appropriately, the researchers contend.
"Children may be doing more than just making a mess in the moment: they are forever changing their attentional biases and the way they learn over development," the study says.
Additionally, the researchers say these behaviors help children build their vocabularies at an early age, which is linked to better cognitive development and functioning later in life.
"It may look like your child is playing in the high chair, throwing things on the ground, and they may be doing that, but they are getting information out of (those actions)," Samuelson said in the statement. "And, it turns out, they can use that information later. That's what the high chair did. Playing with these foods there actually helped these children in the lab, and they learned the names better."