Insight unseen: UVA labs study kids’ behaviors

Local parents can enroll their children in UVA’s development laboratories, which study everything from infants’ brain patterns 
to the role pretending plays in children’s lives. Photo: Ryan Jones Local parents can enroll their children in UVA’s development laboratories, which study everything from infants’ brain patterns to the role pretending plays in children’s lives. Photo: Ryan Jones

Children are constantly learning—through lessons from adults and from processing information about the world around them. The Child Development Laboratories, part of the department of of psychology at the University of Virginia, comprise four active laboratories that study children’s cognitive and/or social development: The Child Language & Learning Lab, directed by Dr. Vikram Jaswal, studies how learning language changes the way children think. The Early Development Lab, directed by Dr. Angeline Lillard, studies the role that pretending plays in children’s lives and investigates best practices in schooling. The Early Social & Brain Development Lab, directed by Dr. Tobias Grossman, studies infants using neuroimaging techniques. He’s discovered that when infants see a happy or angry face, for example, infants’ brain patterns show the same responses as adults’. And The Early Social Development Lab, directed by Dr. Amrisha Vaish, studies how young children become moral and cooperative people, focusing on children ages 2 to 5.

These labs work with a number of families in the area who bring in their children, from infants to school-aged kids, to participate in studies year-round. The labs set up tables at City Market, Fridays After Five and other events to recruit new participants.

Alison Mamadou, from Charlottesville, has been taking her son, Isaac, 6, to participate in studies at the early development lab for two years. They first learned about the studies through a summer camp fair, and Isaac has participated in five studies so far.

Isaac’s favorite part about being involved in the studies is he loves “interacting with people and learning fun stuff about the world.” His favorite study was one that required him to bring home a puzzle about Australia and its states and log his practice each day.

The early development lab consists of a playroom waiting area, in which children play with toys and “warm up” for the experiment while their parent talks with the lab supervisor about the study and signs a consent form. Each study can last anywhere from five to 25 minutes, and they’ll often group together multiple five-minute studies to maximize a family’s time. Studies can take anywhere from two to six months to complete, based on how quickly they can schedule all of the participants needed: One study could require 50 different 4-year-olds’ responses.

Lillard runs her lab with five undergraduate and five graduate students. They are currently studying how children learn from media and how they interact with new media devices. For example, in one study they are determining if when children watch certain television shows or read books that emphasize pro socialness, empathy and compassion, they then model those behaviors. They are also studying the converse, when children are exposed to stories with negative behaviors. “That is a really important question: When children are watching TV in an everyday way, are they actually drawing from those actions and having them produce actions out in the real world?” says Lillard. “I think we may be finding some surprising things.”


The Child Development Laboratories began a partnership with the Virginia Discovery Museum in September in which they set up a Living Laboratory in the Little C’ville exhibit. From 1-4pm each Saturday, the labs bring in current studies or research-based toys with which the children who attend the museum can interact.

“At the museum you have families that might not have been involved in research any other way seeing that we can actually study their children and seeing them give interesting responses, showing knowledge you might not have thought they had or things you thought they knew that they don’t know,” says second-year graduate student Jessica Taggart. “We’ve had really wonderful discussions with families there. People like to stick around and learn about what we’re doing.”

For more information on participating, call 243-5234 or e-mail—J.L.