Those of you with tiny ones in the house know that almost each day brings a change in their development. My youngest is just over one year old and this is definitely the case with him. Each day it seems he learns a new sign or sound. Recently he began trying to "woof" when he sees a dog and then one day he did the same to a picture of a dog in a book. I was surprised! It seems obvious to us as adults that a child would "woof" at a dog picture but when you think about child development, that's a pretty complicated feat. Now I realize, of course, that my child is not some superstar, this is common at this stage of development. It is pretty amazing to think about how a little one can "translate" a picture of a dog to mean the same thing as real dog.
Like most aspects of development, researchers have analyzed just this skill. It turns out that there is evidence that babies as young as 9 months old can real life objects from pictures. As with most research on pre-verbal infants, this study involving having babies choose objects after completing some "test" and observing the objects to which they were attracted.
In one part of the study, researchers simply showed a picture of a toy to the child. They then presented the child with two real-life toys--one matching the picture and one "new" toy. The results indicated that infants were more likely to choose the "new" toy, presumably because it was something novel that they had not seen before.
The next part of the study was a bit more interesting. After presenting the picture of the toy, the researchers put the real-life toys (picture match and the "new" toy) in opaque containers. In this situation, the infants were more likely to choose the toy that matched the picture. Why is this? Researchers believe that this shows that the infants have the ability to form a mental image of the toy that they previously saw in the picture and keep this image in their mind and this is why the choose its matching real-life equivalent.
Despite having a background in child development, I still sometimes question these studies of pre-verbal infants because there is a lot of interpretation on the part of the researcher. However, in this case, I can really see how the results seem to clearly indicate what the child is learning. Babies are pretty amazing.
Shinskey JL, & Jachens LJ (2014). Picturing Objects in Infancy. Child development PMID: 24779447
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