An article in CNN Sci-Tech by Marsha Walton describes how a developmental psychologist is using Velcro covered mittens to teach children to grasp objects at an early age and give them a head start in acquiring practical skills.
From trainers to knapsacks, space suits to winter jackets, that ripping sound of opening something sealed with Velcro has become universal. But who would have imagined that this fastening material - something first designed to replace a shoelace or a zip - could now find a home in academic research and child development?
It has - and is being used in a project run by Amy Needham, Professor of psychological and brain sciences at Duke University in North Carolina. "Prior to the time that babies get really good at grasping for objects, they're not really good at co-ordinating their fingers and thumbs together to get them around an object", she says.
"We thought that putting mittens on babies that had Velcro on the palms and on the corresponding objects would be one way for them to grasp objects and pick them up prior to the time that they could actually control their fingers and thumbs", she comments.
As a result, at Needham's laboratory, mums, dads and 3- to 4-month-old infants take part in research to see how interested the babies are in grasping the toys on the table in front of them. They spend a few minutes with just the blocks, then play again wearing the Velcro mittens. A video camera captures the wide-eyed looks of the children as the exercise begins.
Some of the kids seem to be more fascinated by the stripes on the table or the researcher on the other side of them than the toys or the "sticky mittens". Some of the babies in the study spent a few minutes a day for two weeks practising with the mittens at home with their parents. Infants in a control group test the mittens at the lab for the first time, with no experience at home.
Perhaps inspired by the cameras and all the attention, 4-month-old Johnny Van Wagener snapped up three of the Velcro blocks with his mittens at the Duke lab, getting praise from Needham and from his dad, David.
"Well, it's interesting, he did it a little better here than he did at home. He wasn't interested at all. He would look at them and start sucking on them", says David Van Wagener.
"It's relatively unusual to see a baby this age reach out and grasp for them like he did without the mittens on in the first place", says Needham. "So maybe he's sort of a little further along than average", she adds.
Four-month-old Leann Darden also seemed to be a natural with the sticky mittens. "She'll grab things with the gloves off, she'll just pick it up", says her dad, Keith Darden. "With the gloves on she'll fling them. She really likes that a lot, the flinging thing", he adds.
After the babies leave, researchers review the videotape to count the number of times the infants touch or swat the toys while wearing the mittens. "They bounce the mitten on the table sometimes to see what happens", says graduate student Tracy Barrett. "Occasionally, when they have a very fuzzy sweater on, they get everything stuck to them, and that's another story", she says.
"We now have evidence that this experience with the mittens leads to improvements in their exploratory skills", says Needham. "Some might argue that learning more about objects earlier would just sort of give them a head start in learning about the world around them".
Her research was published last month in Infant Behaviour and Development. It was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health.
"I don't think of this as a fantastic parenting tool, necessarily", she says. "It could be a fun toy if it's something your baby is interested in, but I don't think your baby is 'not complete' without experience with these mittens".
Further studies with the Velcro could help create therapies for babies developing more slowly than others. "It may be that older babies, even young children who have motor deficits, who still don't have the ability to reach out and grasp for objects may benefit from these mittens", says Needham.
Velcro: a happy accident
Velcro is one of the science world's happy accidents. As the story goes, Swiss mountaineer and inventor George de Mestral returned from a hike in the Alps with his dog, and both his pants and his dog's fur were covered with countless tiny burrs that stuck to both surfaces incredibly well.
Curious, de Mestral put some of the burrs under the microscope and discovered a "hook and loop" pattern.
Mestral copied nature's pattern, patented it in 1955, and Velcro became a hit in Europe and the United States. The word Velcro is derived from a combination of velour and crochet. And it's used now in everything from tents to blood pressure cuffs, helmets to toys, space suits to office supplies... and now to research with infants!
There seems to be an almost unlimited number of uses for Velcro, from the practical to the totally goofy. In the early '90s, late night TV talk show host David Letterman amused his audiences by donning a Velcro suit, jumping on a trampoline and sticking to a Velcro wall.
These days, you can just put the words "Velcro Wall" into a search engine and you'll get dozens of hits on how to buy one or rent one for your next children's birthday party or neighbourhood picnic. These walls now are standard items at amusement parks and arcades.
Toy stores and sporting goods stores also sell Velcro balls and bats, which can be seen on any beach throughout the summer