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What New Walkers Learn from Falling


From The Parent Review







Researchers theorized that because new walkers frequently fall on their own, they might not immediately understand when it is an external source responsible for the tumble. As they become better walkers, they may learn faster when something other than their own awkwardness causes a fall.


A baby's first steps are full of falls. To frazzled parents, it seems as if new walkers "fall-down-go-boom" all day long. What, if anything, do babies learn from all that falling?


To find out, researchers set up an experiment using groups of children ages 15, 21, 27, 33 and 39 months. They also tested a group of adults. First, the researchers studied the toddlers and adults walking down a solid walkway. Then, researchers modified the walkway: a section was removed, replaced by a pit filled with foam blocks, and covered with patterned fabric. A string of blinking, colored lights marked the spot where the surface changed.


The researchers determined that learning had occurred when the toddlers avoided falling into the pit in two consecutive trials - by refusing to walk, holding onto the researcher or crawling, backing in, diving or lowering themselves into the pit.


Despite visual cues, all the children and adults fell into the pit on the first trial. Not surprisingly, most of the adults learned after one trial - and all by the second - to adapt to the surface change, either by gently lowering themselves into the pit or by leaping over it. However, the toddlers required more trials to learn this lesson.


Several of the 15-month-olds never learned, falling into the pit in each of 16 trials, and only 11 percent of that age group learned after one trial. But the percentage of children who learned after one trial increased with age, with 50 percent of the 39-month-olds learning after just one fall.


In addition, methods for indicating they'd learned about the pit varied with age. Approximately 50 percent of the children ages 15 months to 27 months refused to go down the walkway. But by 33 months only a few refused, and by 39 months none refused.


Diving into the pit had the opposite correlation with age. None of the 15-month-olds dove into the pit. But this number increased steadily, with half the children over 33 months diving into the pit instead of falling, showing an awareness of the surface change and a change of behavior to accommodate it.




Although all the children, with the exception of a few 15-month-olds, eventually learned not to fall into the pit, they required an average of three trials in each. The researchers wondered: Why did children fall several times before learning?


They theorized that new walkers fall frequently because of poor control over their movements. Because they frequently fall on their own, they might not immediately understand when it is an external source responsible for the tumble. As they become better walkers, they may learn faster when something other than their own awkwardness causes a fall.


While all the children showed some learning, the older the children were, the more apt they were to learn the lesson after only one trial, as adults do. Perhaps cumulatively, the research suggests, children are able to relate visual cues to factors that may cause them to fall, and thus learn to take steps to prevent tumbles. Keeping their eyes open for things that might trip them up is a lesson that children will take on many paths.


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