Going Straight to the Source: How do infants learn best?
August 10, 2012
by Robin Tricoles
Infants love having books read to them over and over again. For parents, story time is an opportunity to bond and to wind down at the end of the day. For babies, story time is all that and more—it’s also a time to learn.
But like adults, infants are now exposed to more information from more sources than ever before, be it books, TVs, or computers. So scientists like Rachel Barr, a developmental psychologist, want to know how well infants learn from select sources of information compared with how well they learn from face-to-face interactions.
To measure this, Barr looked at how well infants imitate what they’ve seen. That’s because very early in their development they’re highly proficient at imitating people, says Barr. In one study, she and her collaborators showed a group of infants a game on a touch-screen device, and another group of infants was not shown the game. The researchers then went away for a while, and then came back, to see how infants in both groups played the game.
“If the group of infants who were shown the game copied us better than the children who have never seen the game before, we can say they learned from the touch screen device,” says Barr.
What she and other researchers have consistently found: infants learn more from a live demonstration than from touch-screen computers, books, or TV. However, the researchers showed infants can learn from books, computers, and TV. Barr and her colleagues have completed a series of studies looking at how parents and children’s interact at home when they’re using these devices together. They found that repetition and parental interaction with their babies are key to learning, which explains in part why infants love having the same book repeatedly read to them, or why infants like viewing the same DVD.
In essence, when infants are trying to learn from books and devices, they need help making sense of symbols such as letters, numbers, and pictures. They’re coming to grips with translating two-dimensional information into a three-dimensional world. “So, if a parent says, ‘Oh, look, that’s a cat or dog it helps infants bridge the gap from the TV or a book to the real world,’” says Barr.
“As adults, we don’t necessarily think about that. We don’t think about how hard it is to bring two-dimensional symbols into the real world. When you’re a parent, and you’re reading Good Night Moon over and over and over, it’s because it’s hard for babies to encode this information. So when very young children ask us to watch the same show over and over or read the same book over and over, they’re learning from this repetition.”
Barr and her collaborators are now developing games to analyze learning in older children and adults who are using various informational sources. And so far, in keeping with their studies involving infants, the researchers are seeing differences in how effective select devices are when it comes to learning. Yet the reasons for these differences aren’t yet clear. There’s still a lot we need to learn, says Barr.
Rachel F. Barr is a developmental psychologist whose research focuses on understanding the learning and memory mechanisms that develop during infancy and early childhood. She is an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University and the director of the Georgetown Early Learning Project, a psychology research lab that seeks to better understand how infants learn and remember information during the first two years of life.