We all know that babies are wrigglers! Their motor skills develop rapidly, from the early arm-waving and leg-kicking researchers call “motor babbling”, to reaching, pointing, and picking up and mouthing toys, to crawling, cruising and finally walking. All of this unfolds remarkably quickly, as frazzled parents of two-year-olds will testify!
Importantly, at the same time as learning the skills they need to move around in the world, babies and toddlers are also learning language. Recently, researchers have been asking whether these two strands of development could be linked. And it turns out that yes, they are! For example, there is now evidence that children who learn to point earlier have higher vocabularies than later pointers1, and that children who are walking hear more language than children yet to walk2. So, there is growing evidence that these major milestones in motor development are associated with language development.
Common motor behaviours such as play with objects are a result of children’s natural curiosity.
Babies are curious little people who spend a lot of their time exploring and learning about the world around them. They play with their toys (and often things that aren’t toys!) at their own pace, in their own way, often interacting with objects in creative ways that surprise adults. This active, curiosity-based learning is a key feature of early development. Like the major motor milestones, then, this curiosity-based exploration may also be associated with language learning. In our LuCiD work package at University of Manchester, Dr Samantha Durrant, Prof Julian Pine, Prof Gert Westermann and Dr Katie Twomey are exploring (no pun intended) this possibility.
In the first phase of LuCiD, Samantha and colleagues at University of Liverpool followed the development of 80 babies from 6 months to 5 years in the Language 0-5 project. In this ambitious project, researchers took regular measures of babies’ language and other important features of early learning, resulting in a wonderfully rich picture of these children’s development. Importantly for us, parents were asked to video their babies playing in their everyday environment, for example their front rooms. These videos provide a record of babies’ curiosity-driven exploration, and together with the measures of babies’ language development, allow us to answer the question of how curiosity relates to language learning.
We’re currently working towards answering this question by recoding what babies do in these videos: do they bang toys together, put them in their mouths, turn them upside down? Next, we will analyse whether the frequency and range of babies’ curiosity-based actions relate to the size of their vocabularies. We’re anticipating that they will: we expect more curious babies to understand more words. If so, this is great news for parents – as well as benefitting from shared activities like nursery rhymes, storybooks and games, babies are clever little people who can show adults what they want to learn about next!
Why humans are such curious creatures is further explained by Dr Twomey in the following interview with LiveScience magazine last summer and in a more recent University of Salford Cognitive Development Lab's podcast.
Brooks, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2008). Infant gaze following and pointing predict accelerated vocabulary growth through two years of age: A longitudinal, growth curve modeling study. Journal of Child Language, 35(1), 207–220.
Karasik, L. B., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., & Adolph, K. E. (2014). Crawling and walking infants elicit different verbal responses from mothers. Developmental Science, 17(3), 388–395.