From using spoons to flying airplanes - how many objects do young kids know how to use?

One of the amazing things about humans is that we create inventions and pass them on to other people. Our inventions get more and more sophisticated, allowing us to have things like sky scrapers, computers, and airplanes. It’s hard to imagine that an architect or engineer could create a new building or machine without ever having seen an example of one before (well they could - but it might not be very good). As well as these technologically advanced inventions, throughout history we’ve had more simple inventions which are useful in day to day life, and that we still use. These include food utensils, like spoons or chopsticks; axes and knives to chop things; and containers to store food and other items. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of cutting tools as long as 2.6 million years ago!

In order to keep our culture alive, it’s really important that successive generations learn how to use these inventions. If not, we’d have to start over every time. And this learning begins very early on. As discussed in previous blogs, children as young as 14 months copy intentional actions on novel objects. So if, for instance, you show children a novel light box, and turn it on by pressing your head on it, toddlers will copy this action.

Even earlier, there is a surprisingly large literature on babies’ ability to use spoons. For instance, when watching someone pick up a spoon, most 10 month-olds will look towards that person’s mouth before the spoon even gets there. This suggests they know that spoons are used to go in mouths. Indeed, in the video above, it looks like one 8-month-old even knows how to use a spoon herself (though apparently with a few misses towards the cheek). And in fact, there are a whole bunch of feeding videos on youtube showing other babies doing the same thing.

Despite a large body of research showing that babies and toddlers are good at learning how to use objects, it’s still not very clear how many different types of everyday objects they know how to use. However, chances are their knowledge is pretty good. Around the same time that children start to use objects, they also start to learn words. Children typically understand their first word around 8 months, and say their first word around a year (though this varies greatly from child to child). The MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories have tracked thousands of children’s vocabulary development across many different languages from the first year to around 2 and a half years of age. Using parent report, they find that by 18 months, children can say on average around 85 words, and understand on average around 250 words. By 30 months, children can say on average over 500 words! Though keep in mind that this will vary drastically for different children.

While we know about typical vocabulary development, surprisingly, we know little about how many objects children know how to use. So while it seems most toddlers can match the word “shovel” to the object, it’s still not clear if children understand how to use objects like shovels. Without knowing how these objects work, it’s unclear whether children really understand what these objects are for. That's why we are running the First Actions Survey this month, for anyone with a child between 0 and 47 months. We are interested in finding out how many everyday objects young children actually know how to use, and if they are capable of using them themselves. In effect, we are trying to figure out children’s “action vocabularies”. We want to hear from you whether or not your child is physically active yet, whatever country you are from, and whatever your child's type of development (e.g., deaf, blind). Just register or login on our homepage at

· Dr Elena Hoicka is a Lecturer (equivalent to Assistant Professor) in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield, in England. Her research focuses on the early development of humour, pretending, deception, and learning.


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