Kids who play with their food may be better learners

Allowing children to play with their food may make them better learners.

Young children were more likely to learn words for certain non-solid objects like oatmeal and glue when they were allowed to explore the substances by using their hands and making a mess.

The researchers pointed out that it is easier for kids to learn the names of solid objects because they don’t change shape and size. But, non-solid items can present in different forms, making the names harder to learn.

The team of reserachers showed 16-month-olds 14 kinds of non-solid foods and drinks. They gave the items fake names like “dax” and “kiv.”

After seeing the items for a minute, the children were  asked to match the item to its name, even though the products were in different shapes and sizes from the ones they were originally presented.

In order to complete the task, many of the kids had to rely on the items’ other qualities besides appearance. They decided to touch, eat and throw the items so they could get a sense of the food or drink. The kids who were more active and tactile with their foods were better able to identify the items.

The children were also placed in a variety of eating scenarios such as on a high chair or being seated at a table. The kids who were in a high chair -- their more typical environment -- did better with the naming task.

"(They are) used to seeing non-solid things in this context, when they're eating," senior author Larissa Samuelson, associate professor in psychology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, said in a press release. "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."

"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," she added.

Samuelson said that it may look like kids are just playing with their food, but they may actually be learning more about the world around them.

"They're not just being messy," agreed study co-author Lynn Perry, who was a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa during the study. She said to the WebMD Boots in the U.K. "There's information that can be gained from that messiness. So they might just be having fun, feeding and touching food at that moment, but that messiness is helping them learn about things, like yogurt and jam, and all these things that they can really only learn about through touch and tasting."

The study was published in Developmental Science on Dec. 1.