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7.2: What is Perception?

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    • Amanda Taintor

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    Perception refers to the process of taking in, organizing, and interpreting sensory information. Perception is multimodal, with multiple sensory inputs contributing to motor responses (Bertenthal, 1996). An infant's turning his head in response to the visual and auditory cues of the sight of a face and the sound of a voice exemplifies this type of perception, "the fact that the senses provide overlapping information . . . is a cornerstone of perceptual development" (Bahrick, Lickliter, & Flom 2004).[1]

    As infants develop increasing motor competence, they use perceptual information to decide which motor actions to take (Adolph & Joh, 2007). For example, they may adjust their crawling or walking in response to the rigidity, slipperiness, or slant of surfaces (Adolph, 1997). Motor movements, including movements of the eyes, arms, legs, and hands, provide most of the perceptual information infants receive (Adolph and Berger 2006). Young children's bodies undergo remarkable changes in the early childhood years. In describing this development, Adolph and Avolio (2000, p.1148) state, "Newborns are extremely top-heavy with large heads and torsos and short, weak legs. As infants grow, their body fat and muscle mass redistribute.[1]

    In contrast to newborns, toddlers' bodies have a more cylindrical shape, and they have a larger ratio of muscle mass to body fat, especially in the legs." These changes in weight, size, percentage of body fat, and muscle strength provide perceptual/motor challenges to infants as they practice a variety of actions (Adolph & Berger, 2006). This dramatic physical development occurs within the broad context of overall growth. As infants master each challenge, their perceptual and motor behavior reflects their social environment.[1]

    The extent and variety of infant perceptual and motor behavior are remarkable. Infants and toddlers spend a significant part of their days engaged in motor behavior of one type or another. By three and a half months of age, infants have made between three and six million eye movements during their waking hours (Haith, Hazen, & Goodman, 1988). Infants who crawl and walk have spent roughly half of their waking hours involved in motor behavior, approximately five to six hours per day (Adolph & Joh, 2007, p.11). Daily infants who are walking ". . . take more than 9,000 steps and travel the distance of more than 29 football fields. They travel over nearly a dozen different indoor and outdoor surfaces varying in friction, rigidity, and texture. They visit nearly every room in their homes, and they engage in balance and locomotion in the context of varied activities" (Adolph & Berger, 2006, p. 181).

    Early research in motor development involved detailed observational studies that documented the progression of infant motor skills and presented an understanding of infant motor behavior as a sequence of universal, biologically programmed steps (Adolph & Berger, 2006; Bertenthal & Boker, 1997; Bushnell & Boudreau, 1993; Pick, 1989). In comparison, current research in motor development often emphasizes action in the context of behavior and development in the perceptual, cognitive, and social domains (Pick, 1989). In particular, contemporary accounts of infant motor development address (1) the strong relationship between perception and action (Bertenthal 1996; Gibson 1988; Thelen 1995), (2) the relationship between actions and the environment (Gibson 1988; Thelen 1995), and (3) the importance of motives in motor behavior, notably social and explorative motives (von Hofsten 2007). How these developing behaviors and abilities play a role in the social/emotional aspects of the child's life and functioning, such as forming early relationships and building an understanding of others, is noteworthy.[1]

    The current view suggests that thinking about perceptual/motor development includes infants and toddlers with disabilities or other special needs. Children whose disabilities affect their perceptual or motor development still want to explore and interact with the people and environment around them. Although the perceptual and motor development of children with disabilities or other special needs may follow a pathway that differs from typical developmental trajectories, sensitive and responsive caregivers can provide alternative ways in which to engage children's drive to explore, building on their interests and strengths and supporting their overall physical and psychological health.[1]

    For years, researchers, educators, and early childhood professionals have emphasized the interrelatedness of the developmental domains. Current research supports an even greater understanding of the relatedness and dependence of factors, domains, and processes in development (Diamond 2007). The developmental domains are linked with factors such as culture, social relationships, experience, physical health, mental health, and brain functioning (Diamond 2007). In the case of perceptual and motor behavior, Diamond (2007) has observed that perception, motor behavior, and cognition occur in the context of culture, emotion, social relationships, and experience, which influences physical and mental health and overall health brain functioning. Bertenthal (1996) has proposed that perception and motor action are interrelated rather than autonomous processes. They may be best viewed as different components of a system. Common behaviors such as reaching and turning the head for visual tracking illustrate the interrelatedness of infant development's motor, perceptual, cognitive, and social-emotional domains. Even as very young infants, children are highly motivated to explore, gain information, attend, and engage in their physical and social environments (Gibson 1987). As Gibson (1988, pg. 5) explains, We don't simply see, we look. "Research by Berthier (1996, 811) indicates that "infant reaching is not simply a neural program that is triggered by the presence of a goal object, but that infants match the kinematics of their reaches to the task and their goals."

    Perception and motor action play a key role in children's experiences and psychological processes (Thelen 1995). They also contribute to human psychological development since, ultimately, "behavior is movement" (Adolph and Berger 2005,p 223), and psychology can be defined as the study of human behavior. It has been proposed that infants' use of social information to guide their motor behavior in physically challenging or unfamiliar situations provides an excellent means to study infant social cognition (Tamis-LeMonda and Adolph 2005).[1]

    [1] California Department of Education (CDE Press). Perceptual and Motor Development . Is used with permission.

    This page titled 7.2: What is Perception? is shared under a mixed 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amanda Taintor.