Two stories surfaced over the holidays that, while seemingly unrelated, may have a connection through the questions they raise. The first concerned a study published in Developmental Science about learning through eating. Toddlers were taught new names for foods and were then tested to see if they could connect those names with the foods when they were presented in different colors and shapes. The conclusion was that the toddlers learned better if they had played with their food.
The purpose of this research was to understand more about how babies learn the names of nonsolid objects. Parents are familiar with the way we label everyday things almost automatically for babies, helping the names of objects become part of the beginning of speech. First books show pictures of a ball, dog, or cup – things easy to recognize. Other things that do not have such concrete, fixed shapes are more difficult to identify by sight. Mushy cereal or mashed potatoes are more challenging than a cookie or a cup.
The researchers reasoned that children’s most regular encounter with nonsolid substances comes at mealtimes, and this became the focus of the study. They found that toddlers who were reported by their parents to be messy eaters showed the best learning. The messiness came from children exploring the mushy cereal with their hands, squeezing and smearing it, eventually tasting it by licking their fingers. These were the children who understood what creamy cereal was and could identify it even if it came in a different shape, or tinted with food coloring.
Apparently, sometimes the messes that parents dread having to clean up are an important part of children’s learning. This reflects the fact that young children learn by exploring their world. This exploration means the use of their senses. They learn by looking, smelling, touching and tasting – one reason children put everything in their mouths, to the dismay of their parents. I remember well my son as a young child pouring a box of Ivory Snow on the floor, thinking he could build the snowman shown on the cover. He then thought he could clean it up with some water. No need to describe the result of that attempt.
The point, though, is that children learn through these explorations, often demonstrating both imagination and creativity. This often results from an adult point of view in “making a mess.” But is also the reason that programs for young children include opportunities for them to play with sand, water, clay or play-dough, even finger paints. Adults sometimes see children as “just playing,” and think they should be learning letters and numbers. Actually, much of that play is learning, and is the foundation for later learning and curiosity on which we tend to place a higher value.
So what are we to make of the results of a survey of 1,000 parents of young children, that found more than half planned to buy a tech item for their children this holiday season. About two-thirds of those planned to give a tablet or smart-phone. Toy makers are increasingly devising tablets for children and including apps in more traditional toys. It appears that digital entertainment is the order of the day.
The apparent contradiction between digital entertainment and learning about the world through the use of our senses raises some important questions about early childhood development, but also about what we value as a society. The argument has been made that the technological world surrounding even the youngest children today is the world in which they will live, and the new tech toys are preparing them to function in that world. Parents and others point to the way children are learning from iPADs and the like, and there is no doubt that they seem to be magnets for even very young children.
Do these changes mean that the experiences that were thought necessary for optimal child development are less important than we thought? Or is it that those experiences led to different skills and attributes of personality that no longer serve the needs of today’s world? These questions are somewhat unanswerable since we as yet don’t and can’t know the adult outcome of the new childhood experience. We do know that technology has changed the world in which our children will live. And undoubtedly, future research will tell us more about whether children’s brains develop differently through their exposure to technology.
In the meantime, the opportunity for swiping is now readily there even in infancy. Perhaps our challenge as parents is to find ways to continue to expose our children to opportunities for squishing.