Lab Director: Dr. Judy DeLoache
Gilmer Hall
Research Projects
Recent Publications

As young children explore the world, we also want to explore theirs. In the CSC, we are always busy conducting several different studies on development in the first few years of life.  Almost all of our studies focus on cognitive development, and many are designed to tell us more about how young children come to understand and use symbols.  Here are some of the projects that are currently under way in the lab.

Very Young Children's Interest in Animals

Anyone who has spent any time with young children would have a difficult time denying the fascination young children, from very early in development, have with animals. How often have you encountered an infant falling out of his stroller to get a closer look at a dog, how many outings have been delayed over an infants’ fascination with a squirrel or bird on the side of the road? The goal of this research is to establish and explore the nature of children’s fascination with animals by observing children’s interactions with animals. In one study, we are observing children’s reactions to animals they encounter “on the streets,” in an attempt to quantify the behaviors of those children who fall out of their strollers to see the dogs. In another study, we will have animals set up in the lab and we will observe whether children notice and respond to the animals during their normal warm-up periods for other studies. These studies will help establish a foundation for our understanding of the development of children’s fascination with animals.

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Perceiving the Movements of Living Things

The human mind appears to be particularly attuned to other living things. This presumably helps us to quickly recognize other members of our species and to detect threats such as predatory animals. This preference may explain why so many young children are so excited to encounter animals when they're out in the world and why so many children develop rich and lasting relationships with their pets. Some recent research, which your child may have participated in, shows that this interest in animals appears early in life. Young infants prefer to look at films and photos of animals over those of vehicles, toys, and other objects. In a new study, we are looking at whether children with autism spectrum disorders also prefer to look at animal videos compared to videos of mechanical objects. We've found that while many of the children with autism liked to look at the animals, some preferred, instead, to look at the mechanical objects. Now, we are seeing if severity of autistic symptoms relates to children's animal or object preferences.

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Learning About Animals in Informal Settings

Parents often take their children to museums as a place to learn in fun and interesting new ways. A great deal of research has examined family interactions in museums and the kind of conversation that occurs around a particular exhibit. However, it is unclear how much children learn from these interactions and how parents’ conversational strategies affect learning. Do children remember information from these visits a few days later? Do they transfer the concepts from one example to another? In collaboration with the Virginia Discovery Museum , we are studying these aspects of children's learning of biological information in informal settings.
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Learning from Animals

In previous studies, our lab has shown that young children, and even infants, seem to have an elevated interest in animals over almost all other kinds of stimuli. Currently, we are investigating whether this elevated interest translates into memory and learning advantages for animal content. In one study, we are using several popular memory games to determine if preschoolers perform better when playing the games with pictures of animals or common household objects. In another study, we are using picture books to teach toddlers facts about novel animals and novel objects. We are interested in seeing if the animal information leads to better learning. In the future, we hope to apply this research to educational contexts.

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Children's Preference for Feedback

What are children’s responses to adult feedback? Young children exist in a world of adult feedback. Whether children solicit feedback or not, adults in the home and classroom seek to guide children’ s efforts through praise, guidance, and critique. We are working to understand how children make sense of the different kinds of feedback they receive and how their interpretations change over time.

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Scale Errors  

We have recently documented something that has never before been reported in the scientific literature (although you may have observed it in your own home).  After repeatedly seeing toddlers try to sit down on a tiny chair in a scale model in the lab, we decided to study this remarkable behavior.  We now have considerable evidence (on videotape) that toddlers sometimes misestimate, to an astonishing degree, the relation between the size of their own body and an object.

In this research, children between 18 and 30 months come to the lab and play with some large toys—a car they can get into, a chair they can sit in, and a slide they can climb up and go down.  Then, while the child is out of the room, these large objects are replaced with miniature replicas exactly like them except for size.

We find that children often try to perform the same actions on the miniature objects that they had done with the full-sized ones: They try to get into the miniature car and to go down the tiny slide.  This research tells us that young children’s knowledge about objects and what you do with them sometimes causes them to lose track of the fundamental difference between the real object and a replica.  In the coming year, we plan to do several studies that we hope will give us a better understanding of this very intriguing aspect of young children’s behavior.

here to see children participating in this study.  Each child is trying unsuccessfully to play on a toy that is too small!

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Learning from Picture Books: Infants and Toddlers

Most parents assume that their infants and toddlers learn a great deal from their experience with picturebooks.  They expect, for example, that after hours of conversation about pictures of zoo animals that their children have never seen, the children will recognize and know something about those animals on their first trip to a zoo.  However, surprisingly little research has been done on this important topic. 

We are currently studying what young children learn through picturebook interactions with adults, and we are particularly interested in their ability to apply what they learn to the real world. In some of the studies, children look at books containing some pictures of novel objects along with pictures of familiar ones, and the research assistant labels and talks about all the pictures. We then show the children real versions of the novel objects to see if they transfer what they learned from the book to the real objects. In other studies, we are interested in whether children recognize that objects in pictures not only share the same label as the real world object but also share the same properties. For example, children read a book about a puppet who plays with a ball that lights up and a box that does nothing when he shakes it. After reading the book, the child sees the objects that were depicted in the book and has to indicate which one lights up.  

We have an extensive series of studies planned on this general topic.For example, we are interested in whether children learn about labels, properties, and information better from pictures or from real objects. Also, we want to know whether children can transfer what they learn from pictures to objects and vice versa. Additionally, varying the time between the picture book exposure and the transfer test will enable us to find out how long children can remember information they just learned from a book. Varying how realistic the pictures are tell us if children are more likely to recognize a real object after seeing a realistic color photo versus a simple line drawing like those in many children’s books. We also plan to examine how fantasy context (dogs driving cars, children riding on flying carpets) affects what children learn from a book.

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Learning from Picture Books: Young Children

Choosing the appropriate children’s book can be a difficult task. Children’s books targeted towards preschool-aged children incorporate many different features such as pop-up elements and cartoon pictures. Although it is important for books to appeal to young children, it is also possible that overly elaborate aesthetic features may distract children from learning the material in the books. We are interested in exploring what specific features may be helpful or distracting to young children when it comes to learning.

Thus far, we have found that 2.5- 3 year-olds learn alphabet letters and numbers better when they are taught with a book that is relatively plain in presentation than from books that have extraneous features, specifically pop-up and complex pictures. We are interested in exploring this research further by seeing if parents approach reading these various types of books differently. Perhaps they would read a pop-up book more for entertainment and a plain book more for teaching. We are also investigating if pop-up features are more helpful for learning other types of information, such as picture recognition and factual information. Knowing what features are appropriate for different functions is essential to how we educate young children.

Because many young children--from infants to preschoolers--spend a great deal of time in picture book interactions with parents, siblings, and teachers, it should be valuable to know more about what helps them to learn from those experiences.

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Children's Use of Models

One of the most important areas of development for young children is to figure out the wide range of symbolic objects that are important in our daily lives.  Young children frequently encounter pictures, replica toys, models, and a variety of other objects that stand for something other than themselves.  In some studies, we examine whether toddlers understand the relation between a scale model and a full-sized room.  To do so, we hide a miniature toy in the model while the child watches, and then we ask the child to find a larger toy that is hidden in the corresponding place in the room. 

Our research has shown that it is surprisingly difficult for young children to appreciate the relation between the room and model.  Even though they remember where the miniature toy is in the model, they often don’t have any idea where the larger one is in the room. 

Knowing more about what helps young children appreciate the relation between a symbol and what it stands for should be useful for promoting other symbolic activities, such as reading and doing math.

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