Parents who find themselves cleaning up their child’s high chair may rejoice at a potential benefit amid the multiple spills and stains. Messy toddlers who play with their food on high chairs are more likely to make better learners when it comes to word association with objects, according to a recent study.

Kids become better learners at a young age by using their senses to interpret exposed to new and unfamiliar objects and experiences, according to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Children who are allowed to explore stimulating surroundings are more likely to develop improved neural connections which aid learning in later years. This stimulation determines which neuron pathways become hardwired and help the brain connections become permanent. The more active learning that occurs during early childhood years, the more motivation the child will have to learn. Messy children who constantly poke, prod, touch, feel, eat and even throw objects are simply engaging in active learning strategies.

Publishing in the journal Developmental Science, a team of researchers from the University of Iowa examined the developmental interactions between context, exploration, and word learning in a group of toddlers in a laboratory setting. Seventy-two 16-month-old children were observed as a means to see how they learn words for nonsolid objects – such as oatmeal or applesauce or milk. These words typically take longer for infants to learn. Absolute objects such as blocks, apples, or daddy are found to be more easily picked up toddlers because they can prod and pinch them and they more or less remain the same.

The researchers introduced 14 nonsolid objects – mostly food and drinks such as applesauce, pudding, juice, and soup — to the participants while they were seated in a high chair. The items were presented and given made-up words such as “dax” or “kiv.” A minute later, the same food in different sizes or shapes had to be identified by the toddlers. The task, according to the researchers, forced the kids to go beyond relying on shape and size to explore what the substances were made of in order to get the correct identification and word choice.

The findings revealed that children who interacted with the nonsolid objects by poking, prodding, touching and feeling, among many others, were more likely to make correctly identify them by texture and name. In addition, children who sat on a high chair were more apt to identify and name the food than those seated at a table. The researcher implied the messier the child gets while playing with food, the more he or she is engaging in active learning.

“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 Larissa Samuelson, senior author of the paper and associate professor in psychology at the UI in the news release. “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).”

The findings suggest it is not always about the words the child knows but more about what words they’re going to learn. This study coroborates a study published earlier this year in the journal Child Development, which found that toddlers aged 24-30 months were able to learn novel verbs better in socially contingent interactions – live interactions and video chat. Language learning in these mediums as oppose to non-interactive video training fostered responsive back-and-forth interactions between the children and the adults. This study places emphasis on the importance of interactive learning in early childhood to strengthen and refine a wide assortment of skills.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents avoid using television and other entertainment media for infants and children under the age of two. Brain development is rapidly occurring during these first years, and young children are found to learn best by interaction with people, not low-quality entertainment.

Sources: Burdinie JB, Perry LK, and Samuelson LK. Highchair Philosophers: The Impact of Seating Context-Dependent Exploration On Children's Naming Biases. Developmental Science. 2013.

Golinkoff RM, Pasek KH, and Roseberry S. Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language. Child Development. 2013.