Reading picture books to 18- to 30-month-old toddlers helps them learn things about the real world, psychologists find.

One of the hardest tasks a child must learn is how to relate symbols to the real world. It's not clear to scientists exactly how early in life this process begins.

But it seems perfectly clear to parents. By the time their children are a year old, most parents spend a lot of time reading to them from picture books.

And they are doing a good thing, find psychologists Gabrielle Simcock, PhD, of the University of Queensland, Australia, and Judy DeLoache, PhD, of the University of Virginia.

"This common form of interaction, that takes place very early in children's lives, may provide an important source of information about the world around them," Simcock and DeLoache report.

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Simcock and DeLoache tested 108 little boys and girls: 18-month-olds, 24-month-olds, and 30-month-olds. Kids of each age were divided into three groups. One group was read to from a book with photographs, the second group was read to from a book with color drawings of the photographs, and a third group wasn't read to at all.

The pictures showed a child going through the three steps of building a simple rattle -- putting a ball in a jar, attaching a stick to the jar, and shaking the assembled toy to make it rattle. The pictures came with simple text explaining the actions.

A researcher read the story to each child while pointing to the pictures. Then the child was given the ball, jar, and stick and encouraged to build a rattle.

None of the 18-month-olds, four of the 24-month-olds, and six of the 30-month olds actually finished building the rattle. But many of them got it at least partly right -- and nearly all of them were kids who'd been read to.

"Toddlers are capable of learning new information from picture-book-reading interactions like those frequently engaged in by parents and toddlers," Simcock and DeLoache conclude.

Older kids did best, of course. And all age groups did better after seeing the photographs than after seeing the drawings. This was particularly true for the youngest kids.

"The lower the level of physical similarity between symbol and [real object], the more difficult it is for very young children to exploit the relation between them," Simcock and DeLoache report. "The nature of the pictures in children's books can play a crucial role in learning from them."

The study appears in the November issue of Developmental Psychology.

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SOURCE: Simcock, G. and DeLoache, J. Developmental Psychology, November 2006; vol 42: pp 1352-1357.