ADVERTISEMENT

In a study published this month in Developmental Science, 16-month-old children were taught new names for foods like jelly and syrup, then tested to see if they could connect those names with the foods when they were presented in different colors and shapes.

The conclusion? The toddlers learned better if they had interacted vigorously with the original samples – in other words, had played with their foods.

The study was widely picked up by media outlets, and headlines trumpeted that a toddler’s propensity toward mealtime mess might actually be a sign of intelligence (a media trope not unlike the periodic celebration of the messy desk and the creative adult mind). On some level, it would seem, we are all very ready to cheer for the child with a face well covered in chocolate pudding.

But the experiment brings up a number of interesting questions about how children learn and about the role of play and exploration. The psychologists who did this research were interested in the question of how babies learn about “nonsolid” objects.

“We had noticed in our lab work before that children are much better at learning names for new solid objects that they didn’t know before,” said Lynn Perry, now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and lead author of the study.

Since solid objects have fixed characteristics, it’s relatively easy for a toddler to figure out what makes a cup, ball or chair.

“It’s harder for them to learn the names of nonsolids,” Perry said. “You can’t just look and know what it is. You have to use your senses and explore a little more.”

The researchers reasoned that children’s most regular context for exploring nonsolid substances comes at mealtime, and that putting children in highchairs might help them learn the names of such substances. In fact, children sitting in highchairs did learn better in the study.

Parents were also asked to describe their toddlers’ usual behavior at meals at home, and each child was scored for messiness.

“It was the ones who were messy at home who, when we put them in the highchair in the lab, showed the best learning,” said Larissa Samuelson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, who supervised the research.

So the messy eater experiment is really about the developing brain and the cues and contexts that small children need to create lexical categories – everything covered by a particular word – a challenge especially when the category is not defined by a shape. The children who squidged around in the cream of wheat, tasted it, smeared it, did various unmentionable things with it – they were the children who understood what cream of wheat was. They could identify it even if it came in a different shape and was doctored with green food coloring.

The messy eater experiment is also about play and the way children explore their worlds and learn as they go. Toddlers play with their food because toddlers play with their worlds. And by playing and exploring, they accumulate all kinds of data, which helps them put together a picture and a vocabulary for the world around them.

“They literally taste the world by putting things in their mouths, by making them make their sounds, shaking them,” said Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, a professor of education at the University of Delaware and co-author of “A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool.”

“Didactic information just falls flat,” she said. “They have to figure out for themselves, and the only way they can do this is by messing around.”

Some experts worry that in a world of sophisticated, digital entertainments, children may find fewer opportunities to create their own explorations. And we might wonder whether real-life investigations seem more obtrusive or chaotic to parents accustomed to their children’s virtual messing around.

But mealtime will always offer opportunities to explore. “These simple, everyday activities – like eating – that we might take for granted, for the child really are rich sources of information,” Perry said.

I once worked in a clinic for young children who weren’t gaining weight – in pediatrics, the syndrome is called failure to thrive. Some of the parents had come through refugee camps and times of great hardship, and the sight of a small child “wasting” food by playing with it was very disturbing. We took those concerns seriously, with strategies to allow the children to handle their own food and feed themselves without it looking like too much food was being wasted, and that helped with nutritional intake.

So we can celebrate the sophisticated science that toddlers learn in their highchairs, matching new substances to those they have already encountered.