Learning the Designed Actions of Everyday Objects

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How do young children learn to use everyday artifacts—doorknobs, zippers, and so on—in the ways they were designed to be used? Although the designed actions of such objects seem obvious to adults, little is known about how young children learn the “hidden affordances” of everyday objects. We encouraged 115 11- to 37-month-old children to open 2 types of containers: circular jars with twist-off lids (Experiment 1) and rectangular Tupperware-style containers with pull-off lids (Experiment 2). We varied container size to examine effects of the body–environment fit on display of the designed action and successful implementation of the designed action. Results showed a developmental progression from nondesigned actions to performance of the designed twisting or pulling actions to successful implementation of the designed action. Nondesigned actions decreased with age as performance of the designed action increased. Successful implementation lagged behind performance of the designed action. That is, even after children appeared to know what to do, they were still unsuccessful in opening the container. Why? For twist-offs, very large lids were difficult to manipulate, and younger children often twisted to the right, or in both directions, and did not persist in consecutive turns to the left. Larger pull-off containers required new strategies to stabilize the base, such as holding the container against the tabletop or the chest. Findings provide insights into the body–environment factors that facilitate children’s learning and implementation of the hidden affordances inherent in everyday artifacts.

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