With all of the boxes that have cluttered our home over the past week, Q-ball has had a lot to explore. She’s been able to tip the boxes over, climb in them, pull out the paper, and use them as drums. It’s made me wonder what exactly she understands about boxes and their purpose. Turns out, quite a bit of research has been done studying the “categorization of infant containment,” so this Science Friday is devoted to what infants know about putting stuff in boxes, bags, baskets, or any other container.
Developmental psychologists generally believe that the earliest spatial concept that infants understand is “in” (compared to under, between, around, etc.). They believe that knowledge of this concept is closely tied to comprehension of the word “in.” Here are some of the findings:
1. Infants as young as 3 months can determine spatial change, as has been demonstrated by the amount of time that infants stare as a dot’s location in relation to a bar (above, below, between.) But, research shows that infants cannot determine spatial change in novel objects (defined as objects with which they are not familiar) until later. That is, they know that a round dot that was above the bar is now below the bar, but if the dot is changed to a triangle which they have not seen, they are not able to make the cognitive leap that the triangle can also change positions in relation to the bar (or perform “abstract categorical representation” as researchers call it). Some research has shown that infants cannot form spatial ideas about novel objects until 6 or even 9 months.
2. Other researchers have demonstrated that infants as young as 2.5 months understand that a container with an open lid can have an object placed inside of it, whereas an object with a lid cannot. After grasping this concept, infants can start to learn which objects can fit in containers. So, they start to understand that a short box cannot hold a really tall spoon or that a small basket cannot hold a big ball. This is known as forming categories of containment.
The study I read tried to merge the findings of the previous research described above- that is, it tried to see if infants can form categories of containment for novel objects. Researchers looked to see if 6-month-old infants were able to understand containment in the following items, based upon the length the infants looked at the items and the act of placing one in another:
The researchers found that at 6-months, infants can make abstract categories of containment. So, they understand that a teddy bear is inside of a basket, even if they have never seen the basket or they teddy bear before.
|Some of the containers with which Q-ball is currently playing.|
I believe that I have seen some of these concepts while observing Q-ball’s play. In addition to the moving boxes, we have also been providing Q-ball with a few baskets and some bags- plenty of opportunities to have fun with containment. She actively pulls toys out of the baskets and has started to return some of them. However, she has yet to try to put anything into a bag, perhaps because it is not as open as the baskets. Also, none of the items we are currently giving her provide opportunities for tight fitting containment exploration. So, her Daddy will be happy to learn that I will need to go shopping to find some new toys!
Casasola, M. Cohen, L.B., & Chiarello, E. (2003). Six-month-old infants' categorization of containment spatial relations. Child Development, 74(3), 679-693.