Researchers at the University of Iowa studied how 16-month-old children learn words for non-solid objects, from oatmeal to glue. Previous research has shown that toddlers learn more readily about solid objects because they can easily identify them due to their unchanging size and shape.
New research shows that changes if you put toddlers in a setting they know well. In those instances, word learning increases, because children at that age are "used to seeing non-solid things in this context, when they're eating," said Larissa Samuelson, associate professor in psychology at UI.
"And, if you expose them to these things when they're in a highchair, they do better. They're familiar with the setting and that helps them remember and use what they already know about non-solids," said Samuelson.

Samuelson and her team tested their idea by exposing 16-month-olds to 14 non-solid objects, mostly food and drinks such as applesauce, pudding, juice, and soup.

They presented the items and gave them made-up words, such as "dax" or "kiv." A minute later, they asked the kids to identify the same food in different sizes or shapes.

The task required the youngsters to go beyond relying simply on shape and size and to explore what the substances were made of to make the correct identification and word

Not surprisingly, many children gleefully dove into this task by poking, prodding, touching, feeling, eating – and throwing - the non-solids in order to understand what they were and make the correct association with the hypothetical names.

The toddlers who interacted the most with the foods were more likely to correctly identify them by their texture and name them, the study found.

The setting matters, too, it seems. Children in a high chair were more apt to identify and name the food than those in other venues, such as seated at a table, it found.

"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," said Samuelson, the senior author on the paper.

The authors say the exercise shows how children's behaviour, environment (or setting), and exploration help them acquire an early vocabulary - learning that is linked to better later cognitive development and functioning.The study was published in the journal Developmental Science.


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