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Are Messy Babies Better Learners?

Messy toddlers learn faster, study says
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Got one of those kids who just LOVE to play with their food? Good news, mom: you may just have a future genius on your hands. (Yes, really.) According to new research, kids who tend to play with their food actually learn more while they're at it—and at a faster rate. So the next time your tot is mashing up a fistful of spaghetti and/or throwing grapes against the wall in some hysterical act of defiance, think twice before you get too mad...

In what was probably one of the messiest studies ever, researchers at the University of Iowa observed 72 toddlers as they ate their way through meals of apple sauce, oatmeal and more. As it turns out, those that mashed, flung and smooshed to their heart's content actually learned words associated with their meal items more quickly than kids who didn't.

The study was based on some previously explored research that found toddlers can more readily identify objects like spoons and forks due to their unchanging shapes. But when it came to liquids and other squishy matter? Things get a little hairy.

So to test the 16-month-olds involved in the study, experts brought out 14 different foods of questionable shapes—ranging from jelly to pudding to apple sauce. As the researchers handed each kid the food item, they called them by made up, but easy to pronounce names (for example, the pudding may have been called "dax" or "kiv"). A minute later, researchers asked the kids to identify the items by name. Impressively, those that had poked and prodded the items earlier were far more likely to recall the food substances by name than those who hadn't.

Another finding? Seems like sitting in a chair also somehow helps the learning process. Kids who were in high chairs during the testing performed far better than those who sat at a table.

“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, a UI associate professor who oversaw the study.

As the study's paper concluded: "When young children messily eat and explore food at each meal, they are learning both about individual foods and also about nonsolid substances more generally. Children may be doing more than just making a mess in the moment: They are forever changing their attentional biases and the way they will learn over development."

Suddenly thinking differently about the way your toddler throws around his food? We don't blame you.

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