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Ask a Scientist: What Can Parents Do To Make Infants Better At Learning?

stickymittens.jpgParents are constantly beset by advertisements for toys and programs that will turn their children into "little Einsteins." Researchers dismiss most such claims, refocusing parents on face-to-face interaction with their young children. But what if there were certain experiences we could offer babies and very young children that did indeed prepare them to be better learners in elementary school? 

That's the question Amy Needham, a professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, Peabody College, is attempting to answer. And a recently completed study involving putting Velcro-covered mittens, or "sticky mittens," on 3-month-olds has shown that it may be possible to teach children too young to communicate with language to learn better.

Needham spoke to us about her recent findings, which were published in Developmental Science in December 2015. The conversation is reproduced below, having been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How would you characterize your research and why did you decide to pursue this line of exploration?

Our research is looking at infant learning with an eye towards trying to understand what are the different factors that influence how babies learn, and what they learn, and why they learn what they do at different ages. We're giving them certain kinds of experiences and then seeing what the consequences of those experiences are. We're doing that not to just see, "Oh, how can we mess with what usually happens to babies?" Instead, [we're trying] to look in a really systematic way at what would happen if babies had this kind of experience.

Why is it important to know why babies learn the way they do?

A lot of times people are interested in studying babies because they're interested in the origins of certain kinds of behaviors or where things come from. Why do we do what we do? And that does motivate our work to some extent. We want to understand what some of the most basic learning processes are like because it can give us a sense of what the simplest forms of the learning that adults do [look like].

And then if we understand what the factors are that help babies learn better, or what the experiences are that babies really learn best from, then educators, parents and people who care about babies can make sure that they have those kinds of experiences or at least have access to them.

[We also] try to think about how we can create ideal learning environments for babies and what those would look like.

Can you explain this most recent study with the "sticky mittens"? What exactly did you do, and what did you find out?

We gave two different groups of babies different kinds of experiences using these mittens and using them kind of in conjunction with a set of toys or small objects. The objects that we used in the studies were baby LEGO-like toys that are hard plastic. If you have a toy like that and you smack it against the table, it makes a very loud, satisfying noise.

For the sticky mittens experience, we had the soft side of Velcro covering the palms of very simple, straightforward baby mittens that you can buy at a store. And then the toys had the hard side of Velcro on their edges. So when they just swat at a toy, they don't have to do all the careful planning that you do to actually reach for and grasp a toy. Just getting their hand pretty close to the toy and touching it allowed them to pick it up. And when the toy sticks to your hand, then when you move your arm and your hand moves, what you notice is there's the toy moving through your visual field.

And how old are these babies again?

Anywhere from 2-and-a-half to about 3 months of age.

Pretty little.

Yeah, this is younger than they're normally able to engage in reaching out and grasping an object all on their own. Normally at this age they're just watching other people do things. They're not really doing anything themselves other than crying and flailing their arms and that sort of thing. So the babies who have this sticky mittens experience are really engaging in a new kind of behavior that they haven't ever engaged in before.

Then we had a similar experience for the comparison group of babies who didn't have sticky mittens. They just had mittens that had fabric on them to sort of look like the Velcro but it wasn't Velcro. Their mittens didn't stick to the toys. Even if they were to swipe at the toy, it wouldn't stick. For those babies, we just had a little routine where the parents or the experimenters moved the toys so that they still got to see objects moving and they still had some experience that was interesting to watch, but they weren't creating that experience themselves. They weren't moving the toys around.

In our original study that we did a while back, we [gave] babies that experience about 10 minutes every day for about two weeks. Then we brought them back into the lab and gave them a bunch of little tests to see how long they wanted to watch an object. Did they want to try and reach for it? If we put it in their hand, did they now look at it and try to explore it in lots of different ways?

We found in that initial study that the babies who had had the sticky mittens experience did all of those things more than the babies who had had the non-sticky mittens experience. So if you test them immediately after training, we saw this enhancement of their exploration of objects, which we know is related to learning about objects.

Then, in this most recent study, we followed up with the babies a year later and we used a slightly different, more age-appropriate testing task for them because now they're 15-months-old. In [our follow-up] study we still found differences between the babies who had had sticky mittens experience a year before compared to the non-sticky mittens babies.

Wow, so when babies have this experience as 3-month-olds, it increased their interest level in exploring and learning about objects right then. And then that lasted for a whole year, until you checked again?

Yep, a whole year. We're very excited about this finding. It might give us some clues about what we can do for babies to optimize their learning and development and make sure they're learning as much as they can—without getting crazy about it and trying to make super-babies.

This also gives us some clues about the process of development and how something as brief as this ["sticky mitten" experience] could have such long-term effects. We really don't fully understand that yet, but we think it gives us a hint that babies are building on their prior experience. So when they have this experience where they're engaging in more object exploration, we also have findings that babies are starting to reach for objects a little bit earlier, and that they just kind of keep building on that experience as they go. It's not a short-lived thing.

Fascinating. So, if you're an infant day-care provider or a stay-at-home parent and you do not have a stash of sticky mittens, is there any activity these caregivers could do with children that would help prep them for learning?

I think what you want to do, at least in theory, is to give them experiences where they can see that their actions have an effect on the world around them. That might just be as simple as putting them underneath one of those infant gyms so when they flail their arms they run into the toys that are dangling down and they see something they caused. We think of this as cause-and-effect learning. Of course what happens underneath an infant gym is different from sitting at a table and swatting at toys on the table, but you do see the toy move after you move your arm near it and you see that something changes because of what you just did.

We know that babies are really good at detecting correlations between different kinds of events in the world, like when they smile at somebody that person smiles back at them, and that's a social learning. Making sure you respond when a baby smiles or looks at you and raises their eyebrows or something like that or laughs, [is important]. Giving the baby those opportunities for controlling their environment even in a social situation can be a great learning opportunity for them.

This has all been really interesting. Is there anything else you want to say about this study or about infant learning?

I've seen a lot of coverage in the media about language development and these electronic toys and the push-button toys, and I would really echo that these high-tech toys with those buttons that they press and they just hear a little song or something... That is cause-and-effect learning but it's an artificial kind of cause-and-effect. It's not meaningful to push an orange button and have "Yankee Doodle" play or something like that. There's nothing about it that makes sense for the world outside of that toy.

I do think it's a good idea for parents to follow their baby's lead, and if their baby is interested in a certain kind of toy or a certain kind of object to make sure they get a lot of experience with that. But I don't think that needs to at all be these high-tech toys that have all the buttons and lights and that kind of thing. Babies have thrived for millennia without those kinds of toys, and I think toys from the kitchen or even just you folding laundry or you cooking dinner or you taking a run outside and getting them experience with things that are in the real world, I think those are probably more valuable.

Photo: An infant wearing "sticky mittens" swipes at a toy. Courtesy Vanderbilt University.

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