A guide to observing infant object exploration

"Object exploration behaviors form the foundation for future development across domains. For instance, active experience with objects informs infants about the properties of objects and facilitates their learning of object discrimination, categorization, tool use, and language. The ability to act on objects likely plays a key role in early development because it is a strong determinant of the amount and type of information that is available for infants to perceive, process, and use for learning." Lobo et al 2014

For infants with typical development, there is a strong drive to interact with objects, even early in life. Infants born preterm have impaired abilities to interact with objects even in the first months of life. This impairment likely limits the knowledge they acquire about objects and about how they can act on them; this limited knowledge may, in turn, impair their early learning abilities. (Lobo et al 2014)

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Michelle Lobo's research on object exploration 

A longitudinal study by Michelle Lobo and the team from the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware studied the ontogeny of the behaviors infants perform with objects throughout the first two years of life. 

They tracked the presence of  14 different object related hand behaviors in infants from birth to 2 years of age. They also identified how infants varied and combined these behaviors, and how infants selectively adapted their behaviors on objects based on the properties of those objects.The list of behaviors used in this study provides a useful guide to observing the quality, variety, and variability of an infant's exploratory play with toys and interesting object. 

The table below lists the 14 individual behaviors infants employ when exploring objects. (Adapted from Lobo 2014).  

Holding with one hand  Holding the object with one hand. 
Bilateral holding  Holding the object with two hands. 
Banging together Bangs two objects together several time. 
Banging  Banging the object repeatedly on a surface.
Cyclical movement Moving the object continuously in a cyclical path with reversals of direction (waving or flapping).  
Fingering    When the infant moves one or more fingers of one or both hands over the surface of the object to feel it. 
Looking When the eyes are directed at the object.
Looking while acting   When the eyes are directed at the object and the participant was performing another behavior on the object (multimodal behaviors).
Manipulating  When the participant holds the object with both hands and uses at least one hand to move parts of the object.
Mouthing        When the object is in contact with the mouth, tongue, or lips.
Picking  The infant uses his/her fingertips to make an upward and downward motion to dig in and out of the object surface.
Rotation        The infant moves turns the object through at least 45 degrees. 
Squeezing The infant applies pressure to the object with his/her fingers.
Touching the body The infant brings the object in contact with any part of his/her body excluding the mouth and other hand.
Transferring The infant moves the object from one hand to the other.
Throwing and dropping Infant throws the object or drops it from a height. 

An exercise in observing object related behaviors

At 9 months Will uses a full range of exploratory behaviors when inspecting a new toy.   The short video clip shows him exploring the different properties of 3 toys,  How many object related behaviors can you identify? Does he combine different behaviors?  Does his exploratory behavior display variety and variability? 


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Tutorial series  Getting to grips with object exploration, handling and manipulation

Follow up post From exploration to goal directed actions 

For subscribers: View a range of clips demonstrating the development of object exploration in the first year:  Infant Hand Tasks 

More about a TOMT subscription here 
Includes the Infant Fine Motor Development Checklist 


Lobo, M. A., Kokkoni, E., Cunha, A. B., & Galloway, J. C. (2015). Infants Born Preterm Demonstrate Impaired Object Exploration Behaviors Throughout Infancy and Toddlerhood. Physical Therapy, 95(1), 51–64. http://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20130584

Lobo, M. A., Kokkoni, E., de Campos, A. C., & Galloway, J. C. (2014). Not Just Playing Around: Infants’ Object Behaviors Reflect Ability, Constraints, and Object Properties. Infant Behavior & Development, 37(3), 334–351. 015). Characterization and Intervention for Upper Extremity Exploration & Reaching Behaviors in Infancy. Journal of Hand Therapy : Official Journal of the American Society of Hand Therapists, 28(2), 114–125.    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4083016/

Soska KC, Adolph KE. Postural position constrains multimodal object exploration in infants. Infancy. 2014 Mar;19(2):138-161.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951720/