An Exploratory Study of Toddlers' Satisfaction With Their Toy Environments

Gall Bjorklund, Hood College
Richard Bjorklund, George Mason University
ABSTRACT - Investigation of cognitive aspects of consumer socialization among children can be helpful in identifying early experiences which influence later consumer behavior patterns. An exploratory study was conducted to determine how variations in the toy environment according to quantity and qualitative category would effect satisfaction measures among toddlers. The findings showed promise for future research of this nature.
[ to cite ]:
Gall Bjorklund and Richard Bjorklund (1979) ,"An Exploratory Study of Toddlers' Satisfaction With Their Toy Environments", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 400-406.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 400-406


Gall Bjorklund, Hood College

Richard Bjorklund, George Mason University


Investigation of cognitive aspects of consumer socialization among children can be helpful in identifying early experiences which influence later consumer behavior patterns. An exploratory study was conducted to determine how variations in the toy environment according to quantity and qualitative category would effect satisfaction measures among toddlers. The findings showed promise for future research of this nature.


Consumer socialization has been viewed as a process whereby persons learn to evaluate information in a choice situation (Ward). As a result, the consumer socialization process depends on information-processing skills. Since information processing skills vary according to ones level of cognitive development (Ward), cognitive development is also an important aspect of the consumer socialization process. Consequently, research on the cognitive aspects of consumer socialization can further our understanding of ways to improve consumer behavior by furthering information-processing skills.

The consumer socialization process can be assumed to begin during infancy (from birth to 1 year) and progress through toddlerhood (from age 1 to 22) and continue throughout life. At the toddler stage, the toys parents purchase for toddler consumption may have a significant effect on cognitive development. For toddlers, the object environment, of which toys are an important component, represents an important source of stimulation for cognitive growth (Piaget and Inhelder, 1964). If a child's behavior indicates he prefers one toy environment over another, there is reason to believe that the more satisfying toy environment will have a positive effect on the consumer socialization process.

Nevertheless, little information is available to parents on what toy environments are most suited for different age groups of children. Therefore one must assume parents are purchasing toys based on their perceptions of which toys satisfy their children. The purchase decisions are not being made based on information obtained from objective studies of toddler needs. Similarly, the lack of published research leads one to question the criteria toy companies employ to position their products for specific age groups. If toy companies have conducted unpublished research aimed at developing and positioning toys that satisfy child needs, these efforts should be applauded. However, if toy companies are marketing toys for different age groups based on criteria other than those developed from objective, child related research, clearly they too would benefit from such research.

The objectives of the present research are to identify selected aspects of the toy environment that appear to be most satisfying to toddlers and to determine if age differences correspond to these differing toy environments. First, the traditional measures of satisfaction are examined from the marketing literature. Then the literature on sensorimotor cognitive development and environmental stimulation are used to define the toy environment variables and to provide behavioral measures of satisfaction. Finally, an experiment is conducted that attempts to (1) identify toy environments that satisfy toddlers and (2) determine if a "matching" of toy environments with levels of cognitive functioning exists.



Satisfaction might be defined as the fulfillment of a need or want (Aiello, in Day, 1977). If a product fulfills a need or want presumably more of the product will be consumed. Recently Day (1977) and Pfaff (in Hunt, 1977) have discussed alternative approaches to conceptualizing and measuring satisfaction.

The first approach, or utility approach, is related to the economists concept of satisfaction. Measurement of satisfaction is generally accomplished by analyzing respondent generated preference distributions (Day, 1965, Srinivasan, 1975) ideal points (Green, 1975a) or conjoint measurement determined scales (Green, 1975b). From this data indices of consumer satisfaction can be developed.

The second approach to satisfaction has focused on the extent to which prior expectations regarding product performance have been confirmed or unconfirmed in the consumption process. Here, measurement of the consumer's satisfaction with product related attributes takes place after a consumption experience. The consumer is generally asked to respond to a simple satisfaction/dissatisfaction scale. The Howard and Sheth (1969) model of consumer behavior approaches satisfaction similarly.

"Satisfaction is defined as the buyers cognitive state of being adequately or inadequately rewarded in a buying situation for the sacrifice he has undergone. The adequacy is a consequence of matching actual past and purchase experience with the reward that was expected from the brand." (1969)

Neither of the traditional approaches to satisfaction are directly applicable in this study. The immaturity of toddler subjects prohibits the use of prior expectancy since subjects would have little or no experience upon which to base their expectancies. In addition the expectancy and utility approach requires verbal or written responses which cannot be obtained from infants. However, measures of satisfaction can be based on observable behavioral data. It seems reasonable to assume that infants would most directly express their degree of satisfaction/dissatisfaction through some overt behavior. Furthermore, since their consumption experience is limited and their learning process just beginning, a behavioral measurement might be somewhat less confounded by intervening psychological variables than if adults were the subjects.

The development of appropriate measures of a toddler's satisfaction with his toy environment can find little guidance in the presently available marketing literature. The scales used have relied on verbal and written measures of avowed satisfaction and the products evaluated have not included characteristics of the toy environment.

Thus, new measures of consumer satisfaction must be designed which attend to those characteristics of the toddler's play with toys which most directly relate to satisfaction. In addition, the attributes of the toy environment which are likely to be most sensitive to changes in satisfaction must be ascertained.

Two areas within the developmental literature can provide relevant information towards the design of the present study - the literature on sensorimotor cognitive development and the literature on environmental stimulation.

Sensorimotor Cognitive Development

A cognitive theory of consumer motivation and behavior attends to phenomena such as knowing, understanding, perception and information processing (Markin, 1977). These cognitive processes, according to Markin, serve two basic functions:

1) "they are purposive in that they serve the individual in his attempt to achieve satisfaction of needs.

2) they are regulatory in that they in large measure determine the direction taken in the consumer's attempt to attain satisfaction of his initiating needs." (p. 38, Markin, 1977)

Thus, there exists a dynamic interaction between the individual and the environment as "sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered and used" (p. 43, Neisser, 1967).

Cognitive activity during the first two years of life (infancy) is based upon direct sensory and motor forms of activity and thereby is defined as the "sensorimotor period" by Piaget (1952). Several forces influence cognitive development, including the infant's interactions with the physical environment. During the sensorimotor period the primary form of interaction with the physical environment occurs during play with objects such as toys. Sensorimotor interactions with objects become an important vehicle through which the child derives satisfaction of both physiological and psychological needs, and thus the continuing motivation to interact with the environment. The interrelationships between needs, satisfaction and cognitive activity have been described by Piaget as follows:

"The need sets in motion the act and its functioning, but this functioning itself engenders a greater need which from the very first goes beyond the pure satisfaction of the initial need. Hence, the primary fact is neither the need anterior to the act nor repetition, but it is the total relation of the need to the satisfaction" (p. 170, 1952).

Piaget does not indicate how specific environmental conditions can influence variations in satisfaction or cognitive functioning. However, he does imply that children with a richer variety of concrete experiences with the object world will be equipped with a more complex repertoire of exploratory behaviors to apply to their object interactions (Piaget, 1952). It seems reasonable to assume that a richer, more complex level of cognitive functioning will result in a better ability to differentiate satisfying experiences. In order to determine how satisfaction is influenced, a set of operational measures of "richer," "more complex" levels of cognitive functioning must be determined.

Kagan's investigation (1971) of attention among infants as it related to differences in what was termed the "play tempo" provides a useful precedent for measuring levels of cognitive functioning during infant's play with toys. Differences in play tempo could be distinguished as "reflective" or "impulsive" based upon the measures of the time spent with a toy and the number of acts performed. Impulsive children used fewer acts per time unit and spent less time in each toy contact, while reflective children had opposite play styles. These differences were stable over time and directly related to later cognitive performance.

Thus, it appears that longer periods of sustained contacts with toys and greater numbers of acts are indicative of an increased sense of effectiveness. More needs are satisfied as more exploration occurs. Therefore, the satisfaction that a child derives from certain levels of toy quantity and toy qualitative categories should be measurable by behavioral variables of acts and contact time.

Environmental Stimulation

Awareness of the importance of infancy toward long-term cognitive development has resulted in much attention being placed on optimizing early environmental stimulation, especially during the more "critical period" between 10-18 months (White, 1973). The importance of infant-object interactions during the later half of sensorimotor development has resulted in particular attention being focused on toys as stimulus objects. The ability of environments to vary in their ability to stimulate cognitive activity, and thereby increase satisfaction, can be related to investigations of differing toy environments and their impact on cognitive performance.

White and Held (1966) were early investigators of the potential for accelerating the onset of sensorimotor skills through an enriched toy environment. Their results implied that toys would stimulate developmental gains upon the onset of prehension skills. Subsequent longitudinal studies by Kagan (1971), White (1973),

Wachs (1976) and Yarrow (1975) have indicated that stimulation within the home environments during the first two years could have significant impact on later cognitive achievement. Toys were found to be significant stimulation variables within these home environments.

The results of these and other investigations of early environmental stimulation have consistently isolated several significant characteristics of toy environments. Wach's (1976) analysis revealed the significance of

1) the predictability or regularity of the home environment, including toys

2) the adequacy of stimulation as defined by such criteria as the amount of auditory visual and tactile stimulation and the variety of stimulation

3) the intensity of stimulation as determined by such factors as the number of toys, and

4) availability of toys offering feedback which related to the child's present level of cognitive functioning.

Similarly, Yarrow, Rubenstein and Pedersen (1975) found that varied toy stimuli and toy responsiveness had strong relationships with developmental outcomes. McCall (1974) also discovered that children self-selected those toys which "matched" their level of development.

Thus, it appears that toy quantity has the potential for influencing cognitive performance. Prior research, however, has not compared the effects of specific toy quantity levels under controlled experimentational conditions.

In addition, there seems to be an important relationship between a child's age and the characteristics of the toys themselves. Hunt (1961) was the first to postulate the importance of "matching" the environment to a child's cognitive abilities and the research of Wachs (1976) and McCall (1974) tend to substantiate the hypothesis.

However, specific categories of toys have not been clearly defined in the past research. An obvious source of information for determining appropriate categories of toys is the work of Piaget and others on the progression of infant-object interactions during infancy.

Piaget (1952) has indicated that the sensorimotor period can be decomposed into six stages of cognitive development. In infants progress through these six stages, qualitative differences can be observed in exploration of objects during play. Children within the later three stages (from about eight to twenty-four months), objects such as toys assume a greater role in the child's cognitive activity, and thereby provide a major source of satisfaction.

The actual progression of infant object interactions with toys during the later three stages of the sensorimotor period have been empirically confirmed by Sinclair (1970), Inhelder (1971), Fenson (1976), and McCall (1974). Three major classes of behavior have been consistently identified:

1) Simple, sensorimotor exploratory acts such as shaking, mouthing, moving.

2) Relational acts where objects have been simultaneously manipulated in ways that introduce relationships and/or arrangement.

3) Symbolic acts where objects have been used in a make-believe or representational manner.

The present study has selected toy category definitions which correspond to the above classes of behavior to further test the potential for enhancing satisfaction by providing toys which correspond to a child's cognitive stage.


The purpose of the present study is to extend the limited research on the effects of the quantity and quality of toys on the satisfaction of toddlers. Child development researchers have theorized the importance of play interactions with toys and satisfaction research has received recent attention in the marketing literature. Nevertheless, little, if any, empirical research on the satisfaction of toddlers with their toys has taken place in either the marketing or child development literature. This study is unique in that it investigates toddlers' satisfaction with their own toy environment using behavioral measures of toy satisfaction.

More specifically, this study tested the following hypotheses:

H1: Differences in toddler's satisfaction with different toy quantity conditions will exist.

H2: Differences in toddler's satisfaction with different toy categories will exist, and these differences will correspond to the "matching" age group.


A split plot factorial design was employed in this study where the quality and quantity of toy were experimental conditions. The experimental design was blocked on the age and sex variables.

Experimental Conditions

The quality of toys was defined based on the three categories of play behavior reported by Sinclair (1970), Inhelder (1971), McCall (1974) and Fenson (1976).

The definitions of these three categories are as follows:

(1) Responsive toys: Objects designed to emit auditory and/or visual responses when manipulated by a child. For example, a squeak toy would produce a sound when touched or squeezed.

(2) Organizational toys: Objects designed for the orderly arrangement of related parts such that the child's manipulation can introduce relationships among the objects' parts. For example, a set of stack rings can be taken apart and replaced on the stick in order of size.

(3) Symbolic toys: Objects designed to be used in make believe or "as if" the objects were something else. For example, making believe there is someone to talk to on a toy telephone, or using a doll as if it were a real baby.

Toy quantity levels of 3 toys, 12 toys and 21 toys were chosen to represent low, medium and high intensities of stimulation. Pretesting revealed noticeable differences in toddler's play behavior with these quantity levels. At each quantity condition, an equal number of toys from each of the three toy categories were randomly selected.

Measures of toddler satisfaction with toys were defined as the time per toy contact and the number of acts per toy contact. Satisfaction was assumed to vary directly with both measures. These measures defined as follows:

Time Per Toy Contact. Once a child contacted a toy, the duration of the contact was measured in seconds across all contacts with the toy and then averaged for the total number of times the toy was contacted during the ten minute testing period. This measure was calculated over all toy category and toy quantity levels.

Acts Per Toy Contact. An act was defined as (1) a single form of behavior such that the child's actions could be described by a single verb or verb phrase expressing manipulation and (2) having an observable beginning and ending. Cues used to operationalize this definition included a change in the form of behavior, a pause of more than five seconds separating acts, or the use of a different toy in performing the same act. The number of acts observed was summed for each toy contacted and averaged across the total number of contacts with that toy.


Due to the distinct but rapid developmental period of infants (Piaget, 1952) and the importance of family background influences (Kagan, 1971; Yarrow, 1975; Wachs, 1976) subjects were carefully selected. Children in the age groups of 12 months, 16 months, 20 months and whose parents were college educated and professionally employed were selected for this study. A convenient sample of 24 infants was obtained from the Bloomington, Indiana area. The sample size consisted of 4 males and 4 females for each age group.

Random assignment of subjects to toy quantity levels would have produced cell sizes too small for analysis. To avoid this problem repeated measures on subjects across toy quantity levels were employed.

Experimental Design

The nature of the treatment conditions and the use of repeated measures data suggested the use of a split plot factorial design.

Due to the repeated measures nature of the design there are two potential limitations of this experiment:

(1) The effect of treatment order can influence the measurement of the dependent variables due to carry over effects from prior treatment.

(2) There is a potential for correlation among scores within treatment levels because the same subjects are observed under all treatment conditions.

The first limitation is minimized by randomizing the order of quantity level presented to each subject. The second limitation does not appear relevant. Subjects in this study have undeveloped capacity for long term memory and thus a small likelihood of remembering earlier treatment sessions. Therefore the potential for correlation among scores in the within subject effects should be small; thus the assumptions for uni-variate repeated measures designs are closely approximated.

Toy Selection

Thirty-five toys were initially selected for this study. Most toys came from major toy manufacturers and were recommended for children from the age group under study. The remaining toys were objects commonly found in households which children might use as toys (i.e., a comb, a plastic cup and saucer).

Three experts, knowledgeable of the study's objectives and trained in the definitions of the three toy categories, independently classified the thirty-five toys into the three toy categories. The experts' classifications were reviewed and ambiguous toys, where interrater classifications did not agree, were eliminated. Toys for the 21 toy level were randomly chosen from the final set of 30 toys subject to having seven toys in each toy category. Toys for the 3 and 12 toy levels were randomly chosen from the 21 toy level.

Data Collection

The laboratory for this experiment consisted of a carpeted room containing a table and chair for a parent and a hidden video tape equipment. Parent presence was maintained to help the child adapt to the experimental environment.

During the adjustment to experimental environment period, each parent was told to interact with the infant to facilitate quick adjustment. No infant adjustment problems occurred. When it appeared the child was comfortable with the environment the 10 minute testing period commenced. Parents were instructed not to influence their child's selection of toys; thus, the parents were told to use only general statements like "Look at the toys" of "Play with the toys" when talking to their child. Video tape equipment was used to record all testing periods.

During each testing period a child was randomly assigned to a quantity level and the toys within the toy categories were randomly selected. Each child participated in three testing periods, corresponding to the three quantity levels. The average time between testing periods was three days.

Two raters who had been thoroughly trained in the study's objectives and the definition of acts and contacts coded each video taped session. Prior to actual testing, but after the rater training period, pretest subjects were used to check interrater reliability. The number of acts per toy category recorded by the first rater was correlated with the number of acts per toy category recorded by the second rater. An average correlation coefficient of .92 (p< .05) was obtained.


The hypotheses related to the effects of toy quantity and toy category on satisfaction were tested by two measures: time per contact and acts per contact. The results of analysis of variance on the two measures are presented, followed by a discussion of the tested hypotheses.

Time Per Toy Contact

The analysis of time per toy contact seeks to identify the toy quantity and quality treatment conditions that relate significantly to longer periods of individual toy contact, as compared to those conditions in which a child tends to move quickly from one toy to another without sustaining prolonged toy contact.

Main Effects. There were significant differences in the time of each toy contact at different toy quantity levels (F = 4.7572, d.f = 2,36, p<.05). When only three toys were present, each toy contact was significantly longer than at either the 12 or 21-toy levels. A Tukey test of multiple comparisons indicated that there was no significant differences in the duration of each toy contact between the 12 and 12-toy levels. Figure A shows the average time per contact for each child at the three toy quantity levels.



The main effect of toy category (C) had particular influence on the duration of each toy contact (F = 20.0355, d.f = 2,36, p<.01). A Tukey test of multiple comparisons showed that all children remained in contact with a toy of the organizational category significantly longer than with either the responsive or symbolic category, as indicated in Figure B.



Interactions. The age, sex, and toy quantity (ASQ) interaction (F = 3.3619, d.f = 4,36, p<.05) seems to reflect age and sex differences at the 3-toy level. Figure C shows that 16-month old boys varied the most dramatically, remaining 123 seconds with a toy at the 3-toy level. This dropped to 43 seconds and 27 seconds respectively at the 12 and 21-toy levels. Twelve-month old girls contributed modestly to the interaction, spending more time per toy in the 3 and 12-toy conditions when compared with the time spent by older girls, by boys at 12 and 20-months of age, or with more toys present.



A significant sex, quantity, and toy category (SQC) interaction (F = 3.5782, d.f = 4,72, p< .05) is illustrated in Figure D. It appears that when there were only three toys to choose from, boys spent the longest amount of time with the organizational category of toy.



Acts Per Toy Contact

The mean number of acts performed during a single toy contact provides additional information about the effects of toy quantity and category differences on satisfaction. For example, an infant may have performed more total acts at higher toy quantity levels. However, if infant was not "satisfied" by the toy condition, these acts may have been performed while quickly moving from one to another resulting in fewer acts within each toy contact. On the other hand, a child who was satisfied with the toy environment would remain in continuing contact with a toy and perform many acts within this single contact period. In order to identify how toy quantity and category conditions relate to satisfaction, an analysis of the number of acts per toy contact was carried out.

Main Effects. Significant differences were identified for toy category (C). During each contact with an organizational toy, children performed significantly more acts (F = 24. 3929, df = 2, 36, p< .01). Figure E illustrates the mean number of acts each child performed within a single contact for each toy category.



Interactions. Children's acts per contact with various toy categories did vary according to age, as evidenced by the age and toy category interaction (F = 3.8984, df = 4,36, p<.05). While children of each age group used more acts per contact with organizational toys, children at 16 months showed a significantly greater rise, as shown in Figure F.



Acts per contact varied according to age and toy quantity (F = 2.8276, d.f = 4,36, p< .05). Figure G shows that the performance of 12 month and 16 month old children varied most dramatically: 12 month old children used more acts per contact as toys increased from 3 to 12 and then declined at the 21 toy level, whereas 16 month children decreased their acts per contact as toys increased from 3 to 12 and increased their acts per contact as toys increased to 21. The performance of 20 month old children was not strongly affected by toy quantity.



Sex also interacted with toy quantity (F = 4.6234, d.f = 2,36, p<.05) such that acts per contact among boys declined sharply at the 12 and 21 toy levels as shown in Figure H. Girls, on the other hand, showed a slight increase in acts per contact at the 12 and 21 toy levels.



The significance of additional interactions of the analysis of acts per contact further demonstrate the various influence of age and/or sex on acts per contact at different toy quality and quantity conditions. Constraints on the length of this paper precludes examination of each interaction; however, several general patterns can be noted. Boys at 16 months tended to use the greatest number of acts per contact. In addition, their acts per contact were significantly greater than all girls and boys at 12 and 20 months when only 3 toys were present and when they were contacting organizational toys.

Hypothesis Testing

The above analyses of the measures of contact time and acts per contact were used to distinguish differences in satisfaction based on the effects of toy quantity (H1) and toy quality (H2).

H1 stated that toddler's satisfaction with toys would vary at different toy quantity conditions. The two measures of time per contact and acts per contact differed for the main effect of toy quantity: only the measure of time per contact was effected by toy quantity such that children had significantly longer contact times at the 3 toy level. However, when age and sex differences are considered for each measure, a consistent pattern of higher levels of satisfaction among 16 month old boys at the 3 toy level was evident.

H2 stated that satisfaction would vary with different toy categories, and that these differences would correspond to the "matching" age group. Significant differences in both measures of satisfaction revealed that toddlers in each age group derived greater satisfaction from organizational toys. No age relationships with toy categories were found for time per contact and for acts per contact; the only relationship revealed was between 16-month old children and organizational toys. Thus, while satisfaction does vary with toy categories, definitive age relationships for each toy category do not seem to exist.


An exploratory investigation, such as this, of the cognitive development of toddlers can further our understanding and establish an interest for future research on early information - processing and the consumer socialization process. Such research may also be helpful in identifying those early experiences which influence later consumer behavior patterns as well as later cognitive functioning.

The ability to differentiate more satisfying toy environments appears to be more appropriately measured by behavioral data among toddlers who cannot respond to traditional verbal or written methods. Thus, the measures of time per contact and acts per contact which had been used in prior research on cognitive development, were employed in the present study as measures of satisfaction.

These measures were used to determine how satisfaction among toddlers in three selected age groups would differ according to two common variations in the toy environment - toy quantity and toy category.

The findings indicate that certain differences in satisfaction exist under different toy quantity levels. However, the results for the variables of time per contact and acts per contact were not consistent, making it difficult to form definite conclusions. For example, the 3-toy level was satisfying to toddlers based upon time per contact. No toy quantity main effect, however, was found for acts per contact. Instead, age and sex interacted with toy quantity such that 16 month old boys seemed to derive the greatest satisfaction from the 3-toy level.

One explanation for the variation in the two measures of satisfaction could be related to individual differences in children's prior toy quantity exposure in their home environments. Children may become accustomed to the toy quantity levels generally available, with the result that satisfaction is differentially affected by varying quantity conditions in accordance with prior experiences. Historical data on children's home toy environment, longitudinal studies in controlled quantity conditions, or cross-cultural methods might be appropriate future alternatives for exploring toy quantity effects. In addition, the variation in the toy quantity levels may require the utilization of a more controlled familiarization period to better equate the toy explorations children employ under each quantity condition.

The additional finding that no significant differences existed between the 12 and 21 toy levels for either time or acts per toy contact has important implications. Although children did not appear to react negatively to increasing quantity to 21 toys, neither did they appear to change their play behavior. Therefore, the value of providing a great number of toys is highly questionable, based on the present results.

Differences in satisfaction with different toy categories were found. The organization toy category was consistently associated with longer contact times and greater numbers of acts. Finally, using acts per contact as the measure of satisfaction revealed an a priori expected matching of 16 month old children with organizational toys. In the future research, perhaps a wider range of age groups should be used to test for the matching of other toy categories with age groups. Although all three age groups in the present study preferred organizational toys, younger ages, for example, may show equal satisfaction with all toys while older children may show increasing satisfaction with symbolic toys.


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