Saturday, September 21, 2002
DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University psychologists have discovered that fitting infants with Velcro-covered "sticky mittens" gives them a developmental jump start in learning to explore objects
The researchers placed the mittens on infants too young to actually grasp objects, but the mittens allowed the infants to snag Velcro-fitted toys merely by swiping at them. In comparisons with infants who hadn't used the mittens, found the psychologists, those who had used the mitten subsequently showed more sophisticated abilities to explore objects.
The researchers said their study, scheduled to be published in the November 2002 issue of Infant Behavior and Development, suggests that even before infants acquire motor skills for manipulating objects, they are developmentally ready for such interactions. The findings emphasize the importance to infant development of providing a rich set of opportunities for infants to learn about the world around them, said the researchers. Also, they said, the findings support the idea that infants' engagement in objects is facilitated by motor skill development.
The research was sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health.
"We were led to these studies by earlier findings that infants between 3 and 4 months are really beginning to catch on that they can use the features of objects to determine their boundaries," said lead author Amy Needham, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences. "And other researchers had found evidence that infants between 2 and 5 months of age are developing strategies for exploring objects, like switching between visual and oral exploration. So, we wondered whether there was a relationship between the cognitive development and the motor development, and whether one might influence the other.
"Our thought was that if we gave infants the ability to act on objects prior to the time they normally would, this might bootstrap some kinds of cognitive function, like being able to engage and learn about objects," she said. Besides Needham, other co-authors of the paper are Tracy Barrett and Karen Peterman.
The researchers based their experiments on the observations that at 2 to 3 months of age, infants can extend their hands to swipe at objects, but can't actually reach out and grasp objects. To enable an early grasping-like capability, the scientists created Velcro-covered mittens, as well as blocks and other small toys with complementary Velcro surfaces. The researchers then enlisted parents to give their infants experience using the mittens with the toys for 10 minutes a day over two weeks. In the process, the parents were to encourage the babies to reach out and swat at the toys, showing them how the objects would stick to the mittens.
In subsequent laboratory studies, the researchers compared the object-exploration of babies who had used the mittens with those who had not.
"We found that the babies who had experience with the mittens outperformed the babies who didn't in a number of ways," said Needham. "For example, whether the experienced babies had the gloves off or on, they looked more at objects. And, with the mittens on, they produced more swipes at objects that were immediately preceded by visual contact. Both of these phenomena suggest that the experienced babies were doing something intentional -- that they were more engaged with the objects, and it wasn't just a general increase in manual activity." The researchers also found more "cross-sensory" exploration, said Needham.
"The experienced babies were doing more combinations of visual and oral exploration of objects and more switching back and forth between visual and oral exploration," she said. "So it wasn't just an increase in activity, but more coordination between different sensory modalities for exploring objects." What's more, said Needham, the "mitten-experienced" babies tended to drop the objects less than the non-experienced babies.
While the researchers found quite significant differences between the two groups, they still need to explain the origin of those differences, said Needham. "There could have been a cognitive difference, in that the babies with the mittens received more experience in being an actor on the world and being able to produce observable consequences that created the differences," she said. "Or, it could have been that just the extra attention the mitten-using babies received from the parents -- perhaps motivating them to pay attention to objects or systematically bringing the babies' attention to objects."
To answer the many scientific questions the study has raised, Needham and her colleagues plan further studies to explore the causes of the enhanced abilities of the mitten-fitted babies.
A key question, she and her colleagues recognize, is whether this jump-started ability has long-term consequences for development. "One might argue that -- since learning about the physics of the world is so critical -- a head start on learning to attend to objects might have a lasting developmental head start," said Needham. "However, we have no evidence to support that, and we do plan to look at these issues in further research."
Even in the absence of such evidence, however, Needham urges parents to interact with their infants from a very early age, to help them learn about the world of objects. While she and her colleagues have no plans to market "sticky mittens," she sees them as engaging toys that parents might like to try with their infants. In particular, she said, infants with motor disabilities might find such toys helpful in engaging with objects and the physical world.