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Saturday, September 16, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Sensation-seeking' traits in toddlers

Seattle Times staff reporter

Babies can't jump on skateboards, dash down hills on snowboards or bungee jump, but researchers have found "sensation-seeking" traits in children as young as 2.

Babies who were quicker to reach for and react to new toys were more likely to be highly positive and take risks and explore a year later as toddlers, according to researchers from Penn State University.

Researchers placed 90 children ages 6 months and 1 year in situations that tested such things as whether they reached quickly for bright toys such as a flashing light and wind-up dragon or more slowly for common objects such as a block and a plate.

At age 2, the same children were allowed to explore a black box with a hole in one side. The children who were more cautious earlier generally refused to put their hand in the hole. At the same time, some of the eager babies were now children who actually tried to climb inside the box.

When presented with a staircase with three steps and asked to jump off onto a mattress, some of the first group refused to leave their parents to go near the stairs. The "high-approach" kids ran right up and jumped off the top step.

Previous research by other investigators showed that adults who are high in sensation-seeking tend to react to unexpected or unfamiliar noises with a decrease in heart rate, while those who don't search out sensations are likely to respond with a more rapid heartbeat. These findings also proved true with the young children.

The forms of sensation-seeking in babies and toddlers corresponded to the same types of behaviors found in adults, including thrill- and adventure-seeking, lack of social inhibitions and experience-seeking.

The risk-takers "appear to be very positive and have an intense interest and zest for life," said Dr. Cynthia Stifter, professor of human development and family studies. "Parents should be thrilled that their child shows that much happiness and interest in life."

On the other hand, she said, parents have a more challenging task in making sure these children stay safe. "Parents have to be mindful that the child may put him or herself in situations that are risky," Stifter said. "Don't inhibit them, but be watchful and do teach safety."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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