The cost of simplifying complex developmental phenomena: a new perspective on learning to walk

Do Kyeong Lee, Whitney G. Cole, Laura Golenia, Karen E. Adolph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Researchers can study complex developmental phenomena with all the inherent noise and complexity or simplify behaviors to hone in on the essential aspects of a phenomenon. We used the development of walking as a model system to compare the costs and benefits of simplifying a complex, noisy behavior. Traditionally, researchers simplify infant walking by recording gait measures as infants take continuous, forward steps along straight paths. Here, we compared the traditional straight-path task with spontaneous walking during 20 minutes of free play in 97 infants (10.75–19.99 months of age). We recorded infants’ footfalls on an instrumented floor to calculate gait measures in the straight-path and free-play tasks. In addition, we scored videos for other critical aspects of spontaneous walking—steps per bout, shape of walking path, and step direction. Studying infant walking during free play incurred no cost compared with the straight-path task, but considerable benefits. Straight-path gait was highly correlated with spontaneous gait and both sets of measures improved with walking age, validating use of the straight-path task as an index of development. However, a large proportion of free-play bouts were too short to permit standard gait measures, and most bouts were curved with omnidirectional steps. The high prevalence of these “non-canonical” bouts was constant over development. We propose that a focus on spontaneous walking, the phenomenon we ostensibly wish to explain, yields important insights into the problems infants solve while learning to walk. Other areas of developmental research may also benefit from retaining the complexity of complex phenomena.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12615
JournalDevelopmental science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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