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Why do toddlers love shapes?

Toddlers just love playing with shapes. So, what's the big attraction?




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Decisions, decisions...

Excited cries crescendo as we walk down the hall. Eleven-month-old Tom has spotted his beloved shapes jigsaw book. Giggles ring out as he turns the pages, busying himself removing stars and triangles, circles, squares and rectangles. Each piece is a triumph, held up for my inspection, and then carefully placed into his mouth for further examination. “Don’t eat it!”, I say as he clamps down on a cardboard cut-out. 

This baby loves his shapes. Not that that surprises me. He’s a boy, so his Y chromosome may predispose him to a higher level of spatial awareness than a girl. The truth is, studies on this subject have returned varied results. Nonetheless, the two genders do have very different methods for solving problems.

“Boys have better gross motor skills, while girls have better fine motor skills,” explains psychologist Linda Blair. From about 18 months, it’s a matter of how each gender regards the material: girls may like to handle a shape and take their time looking at it, while boys will probably want to be ‘posting’ shapes through any hole they can find. As a result, boys may appear more spatially aware and competent in demonstrating their abilities with shapes, but this is not necessarily the case.

What is certain is that at this age Tom’s brain is manipulating those angles, figuring out which of the holes in his shape-sorter matches the three-dimensional object he has in his hand. He usually begins by playing with the circle, lifting it to his lips before pushing it through the opening, lingering a little, holding on to the edges before finally releasing it with a clatter into the container. The oval comes next. The hexagon and the pentagon (in that order) always follow, efficiently dispatched through their respective windows. Of course, this is not only a fascinating mental exercise, it also hones those crucial hand-eye coordination skills.

“Babies only start to coordinate their hands with what they see around them at about six months of age,” explains Blair. “Soon, he will make the connection that his hands can do things with objects that his eyes can see, which is why he will constantly reach out and grab things – at this stage, it doesn’t matter what the shape is. However, within a few months, three dimensions become very important: as he starts to walk, he will become more interested in different shapes. After all, if you’re falling down, you want to be able to identify what different surface shapes are likely to soften the blow.”

Tom has favourite shapes, but he also has not-so-favourite ones, and he disdainfully flings the square and the trapezium away behind him. The trapezium I can understand – it’s an awkward shape with a geeky name, but why no love for the square? Talking of trapeziums: why do shapes have such baby-unfriendly names? Even lovely ones, like crescents or semi-circles, are a toddler tongue-twister. And that star that twinkles in the sky is probably the only time we celebrate a shape in song with our babies. 

However, it seems that Tom’s celebration of certain shapes is less random than you might think. “Babies and toddlers will be most attracted to shapes that resemble the human face,” says Blair. “After all, on that shape rests their life until they are five or six. Anything that resembles a circle with two round shapes at the top, a triangle in the middle, and a crescent in the lower half is popular. At around five months, children will scream if the two circles are at the bottom and not at the top – they seek out prototypes of the face, because it makes them feel more secure.

In any case, Tom doesn’t just love circles in his shape-sorter: he loves toy wheels he can spin; balls he can throw back and forth with his grandparents; and the round doorknobs he pulls on. Even his new favourite object – the garden hose – is a circle of sorts. For now, it seems that all the world’s a shape, and Tom is eagerly learning how to piece it all together.

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