When Jimmy and Nora were toddlers, we bought them great little plastic scooters to ride around the house. They were the perfect size for a small child. Yet Jimmy preferred to ride around on a plastic garbage truck instead, despite the fact that there was no steering wheel and the “seat” wasn’t nearly as comfortable, at least to our adult eyes:
We figured this behavior was just one of Jimmy’s unique quirks. It didn’t really bother us, except for the knowledge that we could have saved 20 bucks on the “real” scooter if we’d only known he would end up preferring the garbage truck.
In 2003, Judy DeLoache and some of her colleagues noticed similar behavior in their own kids, and the children of their friends, and, unlike Greta and I, they decided to see if this type of behavior was part of normal toddler development. The pattern they had casually observed was similar to what we had seen: a small child will attempt to use an impossibly small object as if it was the real thing. Maybe they’ll try to put on their Barbie doll’s clothes, or ride in a matchbox car, or sit on a miniature chair.
DeLoache, with David Uttal and Karl Rosengren, set up play-rooms in two different labs, then introduced toddlers from 15 to 30 months old to the toys. Three of the toys in the room came in two different sizes — regular and eensy-weensy. When the tots were first brought into the room (one at a time), the full-size versions of the toys were there: a slide, a chair, and a car. Each was large enough for the kids to sit on or ride in. If the kids didn’t spontaneously play with the full-size objects, the experimenter encouraged them to do so, making sure they played with each large toy twice.
Then the kids were led briefly out of the room while the full-size toys were replaced with the tiny replicas. When they returned, everything was as before, except for the three smaller toys. Again, the toddlers were allowed to play freely, with the experimenter making sure that they played with each mini toy — the ones that were much to small for the kids to sit in or slide on. These adorable videos (click on photos to download) should give you some sense of what happened:
Indeed, more than half of the 54 children tested attempted to use one of the toys as if it were the full scale version, making an “error of scale.” The researchers were careful to distinguish between “pretending” and making a real error of scale. For example, using your fingers to pretend to go down the slide wasn’t counted as an error — only actually trying to sit on the tiny playset and slide down it. Many children repeatedly made the same error. There was also a clear pattern to the errors, as this graph shows:
The errors peak near the end of the second year of life. Deloache’s team says this suggests a real developmental phenomenon: that learning to recognizing an object is a separate mental process from deciding whether it’s the right size to use in real life, and that these two processes are acquired at different stages in a child’s development.
It would be interesting to see if toddlers make the same error with super-size objects. I know that I’ve seen them try to use things that are WAY too big for them. If you have similar stories about kids you know, the comments thread of this post would be a great place to share them.
J. S. DeLoache, D. H. Uttal, K. S. Rosengren (2004). Scale Errors Offer Evidence for a Perception-Action Dissociation Early in Life Science, 304 (5673), 1027-1029 DOI: 10.1126/science.1093567