Here at the Laboratory for Child Development, we study how infants and young children perceive and reason about the world around them. Through the work conducted in our lab and others, we have discovered that in many ways children know much more than people once thought! Yet in other ways, children perceive the world quite differently than adults do.

Click here to read answers to frequently asked questions about participating.

 

Intuitive Number Sense in Infancy

If you didn't think that infants knew much about number, you may be surprised to learn that babies have a natural talent for telling numbers apart. Research in our lab and others has shown that even very young, 3 to 8-month-old infants have a sense of approximately how many objects they see before them.

In our current studies, we want to know how fine-tuned this natural ability is, and how early in development babies show it.

In one study, we show babies pictures with the same number of dots (e.g. 6) over and over. Once they get used to seeing this number, we show them a picture with a new number (e.g. 18) and measure their looking. If they look longer at the new number, we know they noticed a difference and can tell the numbers apart!

In another study, we want to know if we can enhance this natural ability by giving babies positive feedback. Babies see two screens, each showing a series of pictures. On one side, pictures containing the same number of dots (e.g. 8) are cycled, while on the other side, the pictures alternate between two different numbers of dots (e.g. 8 and 32). When the baby successfully spots the changing side, we will play pleasant music for him or her.

Will this positive feedback help to make babies more accurate as the numbers get harder to tell apart (e.g. 8 and 12)? If you have a 5 to 8-month-old baby, he or she can help us find out by participating in this fun 10-minute study!

 

Who Has More Dots?

Long before they learn to count, children have an intuitive sense of number. Babies are able to distiguish between a ratio of 2:3 (e.g. they can tell 8 is different from 12), and this ability continues to develop as children age. By adolesence, kids are able to tell the difference between smaller ratios such as 7:8 or 8:9.

Research in our lab has shown that this intuitive sense of number is also related to formal math abilities. Children who have a more precise number sense also seem to have an easier time learning to read and write numbers, and later learning to add and subtract. This effect continues throughout the lifespan, for example, number sense also correlates with SAT scores in adults.

Current studies in our lab are interested in whether number sense can be enhanced by training, and whether this will have an impact on how children perform on formal math activities. In this line of studies, we measure the precision of kids' number sense by showing them sets of colored dots and asking which color (or character) has more. We then ask them to do more formal math activities, such as number naming, counting, and simple addition.

 

"Chunking" Strategies to Improve Toddlers' Memory

Adults frequently use strategies to remember things more efficiently. For example, we remember 10-digit phone numbers as groups of 3, 3, and 4 numbers (########## becomes (###) ###-####). Breaking large sequences into smaller, more managable groups is a strategy known as "chunking".

In our lab, we run studies to see if this "chunking" strategy can be utilized early in development. To test this, we show toddlers a large number of objects that would normally be more than they can remember. Next, we seperate the objects into smaller, meaningful groups using dimensions like shape (squares vs. circles), verbal labels ("these are my blickers" vs. "these are my daxers"), or social cues (pairs of dolls turn to face each other).

We then hide all of the objects inside of a box, but secretly remove one of the objects, and let toddlers reach in to find them. We think that if toddlers continue to search for the missing object, they must remember how many went in, demonstrating that they were able to "chunk" the objects in memory.

 

Learning from Surprising Events

Before their first birthdays, babies have already formed expectations about the world around them. For example, babies are surprised to see a ball pass through a solid wall, because they expect it to stop when it hits a hard surface. When babies are surprised by an event, they tend to look longer at the objects involved than they would otherwise.

Recent research in our lab suggests that babies spend more time looking at objects that violate their expectations because they want to learn something about those seemingly strange objects. If we teach babies that a ball can magically pass through a solid wall, they are more likely to learn another, unrelated attribute of the ball (e.g. that it makes a squeaking sound) than if the ball is stopped by the wall.

In a current study, our lab asks whether babies will also spend more time playing with objects that do surprising things. 10-to-11 month-old infants are shown a car that is either stopped by a wall or appears to go through it. Next the babies are given the same car and we see how long they play with it. Will babies explore a toy more thoroughly after they see it do something unexpected? If you have a baby between 10 and 12 months, he or she can help us find out!

Math Anxiety and Perception Study

Project Website: afterschoolmath.johnshopkins.edu

Math ability, from calculating personal debt to computing a simple restaurant tip, is critical to daily life in modern cultures. Previous research finds that mathematical competence is linked to career success, income, and psychological well-being. Yet despite the increasing need for proficiency in science and mathematics, US students have been consistently outperformed on math tests by many peer nations. Further, the struggle with mathematics begins early, with individual differences in math ability appearing in the first years of elementary school or before. In addition, recent research reveals the presence of math anxiety in children as young as 5- to 6-years old, with math anxiety correlating with more negative attitudes towards and poorer achievement in mathematics.


One strategy for remediating individual differences in math ability early in childhood, and for buffering against math anxiety, is to provide children with mathematical experiences outside of the classroom, in a context designed to be enjoyable, team-oriented, and not directly tied to classroom instruction. However, the effects of such extra-curricular math exposure on young children’s attitudes towards and achievement in mathematics remain unknown. The aim of the Math Anxiety and Perception Study is to evaluate Crazy 8s, an extracurricular, team-based math club for elementary school children. Characterizing how such experiences outside the classroom impact young learners is a critical step towards increasing math fluency and enjoyment, and may play an important role for designing effective remediation for children struggling with mathematics.

Math Anxiety


If you live in the area and are interested in signing up for one of our studies, please feel free to contact us at infant.research@jhu.edu, or give us a call at (410) 516-6068. We'd be glad to talk to you and answer any questions you might have. Thanks for your interest; you'll find the answers to the most frequently asked questions here!

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