“I spy, with my little eye, something blue.”
Parents often play the ‘I spy’ game with children to avert boredom on long car rides or trips to the grocery store. A form of the game, where children quickly spot objects, is shown to enhance their ability to learn and navigate cluttered environments, new research shows.
The study, published in Developmental Science, found 3-year-old children are able to identify objects at a faster pace when prompted by words rather than only prompted by images.
Spoken language taps into children’s cognitive system, thus enhancing their ability to learn and pay attention. Research into the way language affects the course of development is particularly important for young children who experience difficulties with school and other attention-related tasks.
In the experiment, children played a series of “I spy” games. Each child was instructed to look for one image in a crowded scene on a computer monitor. The children were shown an object they needed to find – a bed for example, among a group of couches.
The researchers found that children were much faster at finding the target object and were less distracted by the other objects in the scene if the name of object was also said.
3-year-old children’s memories are activated by spoken language. That language then rapidly deploys attention, thus allowing children to identify the relevant object in a cluttered array. Researchers believe spoken language conjures up an idea that is more robust than an image.
The difference in children’s search times, with and without naming the target object, indicate a key role of a kind of brief visual memory known as working memory. Limitations in working memory have been linked to difficulties in reading, language and other negative outcomes in school.
The findings slightly contradict the previous notion that children have difficulty with language because they don’t have enough working memory to learn language. However, these results suggest that language may also make working memory more effective.
“Children learn in the real world, and the real world is a cluttered place. If you don’t know where to look, chances are you don’t learn anything,” the lead researcher explains.