Your Child's Brain in Week 67
We're guessing that around now, you're witnessing your toddler make some amazing assumptions about his world as he plays. For example, perhaps your 16-month-old has learned to press down the knob on a top you have in your playroom, making it spin. His eyes light up: "I made that happen!"
Then, when visiting your sister, your child spies his cousin's top, which is not exactly like his own—another shape and size, different colors or characters. He examines this top, then pushes down its knob, making it spin, before moving on to a pounding bench resembling the one he's used at daycare.
Right now, your child is creating and testing hypotheses about how objects work. He's learning to sum up the similarities of one object and apply them to another, a process called generalizing.
What the Research Shows
Research scientists offered 9- through 16-month-olds the following objects to explore one at a time for 30-second intervals: a castanet that closed and clacked; a cube that could be compressed; a cylinder that slid apart while making a sound; a horn that honked; a doll whose head could be separated from its neck and abdomen; and a can that wailed when tilted and shaken. All the objects' actions were not immediately obvious, yet by playing with the toys the children quickly determined each one's unique quality (what scientists call "exploratory play").
Then the children were given new toys that looked like the first set but with different colors and patterns. Upon seeing them, the children quickly inferred that these would perform the same way as the ones in the first set—researchers watched as they attempted to play with them as they had previously. These toys, however, did not do what the children now expected—the castanet wouldn't clack, the horn wouldn't honk, and so on.
Even when the children realized that the objects wouldn't respond as they had anticipated, they kept playing, making several attempts to get the second set of objects to work as the first had. Even some of the 9-month-old children in the study kept playing intently, in hopes they'd produce the same fun results with the second set of toys.
Why did these children persist? Researchers concluded that because the second set of toys were shaped the same as the first (despite having different colors and patterns), the children hypothesized that the toys should perform similar functions. The new set of objects violated what they knew to be true from their past—though brief—experiences in everyday life.