Jeff Lockman, Ph.D.
Jeff Lockman, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Tulane University

If We Had a Hammer (Babies to Toddlers)

How we see spatial advances in early behaviors of “the tool-using species”

At first blush, our five-year study struck some people as silly. To wit: Why would perfectly good scientists want to track the way babies bang objects at different stages of their early development?

My study colleagues and I certainly endured some teasing, but we also think our findings set a foundation with long-term implications for the study of a child’s first encounters with spatial relationships.

We carefully followed the trajectories of a very simple motor behavior—a baby’s natural impulse to bang handheld objects against various surfaces—with 14 babies, starting at the age of six months. We then followed up at later intervals, collecting data up through the age of 24 months.

Obviously, babies in this age range make cognitive advances in their object manipulation skills, but what do the data actually show in an exercise like this?

We used motion capture technology—in the form of reflective tape at the babies’ elbows and wrists—to precisely chart the motions in the babies’ actions over time. We gave them various soft-handled objects and observed their behaviors, without demonstrating any of it.

At the six-month stage, the babies’ actions were highly variable, with their arms flailing all over the place. In terms of energy use, we could see that their motions were not particularly efficient.

But by about 12 months, the babies clearly had begun mastering their unguided primal experiments, with their arm movements becoming much more straight, efficient and consistent.

As observers, we also provided our subjects with a range of both soft- and harder-tipped “hammers,” while also offering a range of softer and harder surfaces on which to bang. Almost invariably, each baby gravitated to the more gratifying percussion effects of the harder objects and surfaces.

The trajectory continued to improve equally across both genders, as we charted the babies’ essentially refining their coordination—“tuning up their arms,” if you will—for a full life of using tools of every kind. The basics resemble the perfect movement for hammering, but the cognitive leaps, we think, show how babies develop skills at orienting the objects and aligning them for maximum effect.

These are spatial skills innocent of formal training, but educators and parents can certainly extrapolate for the long-term. One lesson is to keep providing babies with opportunities to explore the properties of various objects and surfaces by creating an “object-rich” play space. Another might be to provide more spaces where we don’t need to tell our babies to shush. Instead, let them unleash the hammers!