For instance, a word such as spoon is usually learned earlier than a word such as sky. And this relationship remains even when we consider other things that can affect word learning, such as how common a word is in everyday language.
Words such as spoon and sky are both relevant to everyday life, and so children will probably hear those words quite early in their development. One difference between them is that spoon refers to something you can touch, grasp and interact with, whereas sky does not.
Why physical experience helps
Our findings agree with those of studies where babies and toddlers wore small head-mounted body cameras to record their interactions with objects. Those studies show that the children’s own physical experience helps them learn new words.
Body cameras allow researchers to see the environment from a child’s point of view. This gives researchers clues as to why it is easier for children to learn the names of objects they get to touch and hold. At any given time, there are many different objects in a child’s vision. When a parent names an object in the environment, a child must figure out which object the parent is talking about. But when children are holding or touching a specific object, that object is much closer to them and fills more of their vision, making it easier for them to connect the word the parent has used with the object they see.
Physical experience is also related to how children use and process language. Words such as spoon that refer to objects that are easy for a child to interact with are named faster by children as young as 6 years old. This is probably because the child’s physical experience makes it easier to connect a word’s meaning with the written letters or spoken sounds of the word itself, a process that happens every time we read or hear a word.
Play and tell matters
Word learning is easier when a child can interact with an object while hearing that object’s name, rather than seeing the object presented by a parent or on a screen. This isn’t possible for all objects, and children will learn the words for concepts they can’t touch, such as sky, even without physical interaction. But this research shows that it can be helpful to give children opportunities to touch and feel the things they are learning the words for, as long as it is safe to do so.
This means that giving children more opportunities to interact physically with their actual, rather than virtual, environment is good for their bodies and for their brains.