Becoming an action expert

#freshfromthelab: Professor Sabine Hunnius on how infants learn about their own and others’ actions.


In this week’s CBCD seminar, Professor Sabine Hunnius presented her research on movement in infants. She talked about how infants first learn about their bodies and actions, how they begin to understand the actions they observe in others and the mechanisms at play when they act cooperatively with others.


So, why is Sabine’s research SO important for parents? Well, if we know how our little ones learn to master their bodies and perform actions, we can help to enrich their development. One way Sabine suggests parents can do this is through using a form of “motionese” – this is when adults adjust their movements whilst interacting with children, and it usually includes longer actions and more frequent pauses.


Sabine and her team wanted to look at the effects of parents using this “motionese” on children’s own actions. In the study, they asked parents to teach their children the function (e.g., shake/pull/push/twist) of 4 novel objects. When teaching their child compared to when teaching a novice adult, parents demonstrated actions in “motionese” by showing how to use the objects much closer to the child and for much longer.


So, did infants learn better when their parents used this “motionese”?

YES! The infants who were shown the toy for longer were able to successfully perform the action themselves after the parent had demonstrated it. There was also a “just right” proximity between the object and the child, whereby if the object was presented too close it became a distraction and too far away it was difficult for the child to see.


Sabine’s research shows that teaching and learning are really important for supporting your child’s motor development. Another vital influence is the process of trial and error…

It’s well known that when adult experts in a particular field are presented with information from their area of expertise, they process and remember this information differently to novices.

For instance, when professional ballet dancers are shown videos of others performing both ballet and capoeira dance moves, the motor control parts of their brains become more active when they watch movements from their own dance style, compared to the novel dance style (see this fascinating Psychology Today article for a more detailed account). Just like adult experts, Sabine’s research has shown that the motor areas of babies’ brains become more active when they see movements which they have a lot of experience with. For example, the motor control parts of experienced crawlers’ brains become more active when they see another child crawling across a screen, rather than walking. And this effect is linked to the duration of expertise - so the longer the child had been crawling the stronger the activation in these movement-related brain areas.


And not only that! Just like expert adults (see this article on professional basketball players), mastering an action makes babies better at anticipating how someone else will carry that action to an end. Sabine found that experienced crawlers, for example, were good at predicting when another child would crawl out from behind an obstruction, but not so good at predicting when the child would walk out (as they had little experience performing this action).


The research done by Sabine and her team encourages us to let our little ones try things out – even if they fail! If they continue to try, they can learn to master their bodies and eventually become ‘action experts’.


Download our app for some fun ideas to help your baby learn more about his/her own body and actions – the MOVE section has lots of games dedicated to this topic!


Want to learn more about your baby’s development? Visit our Eventbrite page for a list of our upcoming interactive workshops!


Author: Megan Tongs

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