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I lived in Cambridge for 10 years before I had children, and since having kids, it feels like a curtain has been lifted, revealing a hidden universe. There are so many child-friendly places and activities nearby; I recently counted 12 outdoor playgrounds within a 15-minute walk from my house! But Cambridge and the Boston area also offer a less obvious activity for parents and their children — participating in studies of children’s developing minds and brains. Participating in studies can be stimulating and rewarding, as well as offer a welcome break in a busy day.
Every parent knows what it feels like to wonder, “What’s going on inside that little head?” In the first year of life, a human baby undergoes an astonishing transformation from a sweet but larval bundle to a human being capable of goals and plans, empathy and social interaction, and even language. It’s not easy to figure out what an infant or young child is thinking; their thoughts and ideas go way beyond their ability to express themselves in language. So developmental psychologists use experiments to ask questions that range from the sweet and simple (“How early can a child recognize her own name?”) to the profound and fundamental (“What makes human minds different from other animals?”). Translating these big questions into activities for infants and young children takes a lot of creativity and ingenuity. Students in these research labs learn to turn their big ideas into short and simple puppet shows, storybooks, or games.
Awhile ago, I volunteered to bring my two sons (then 7 months and almost 2 years old) into one of these labs on a Sunday afternoon. The enthusiastic young students running the studies were warm and welcoming to the boys and me. The “waiting room” was full of bins of toys. My 2-year-old son was completely captivated — whole bins full of trains and balls! Each boy took a turn “playing a game” (i.e., participating in an experiment) for a few minutes while the other boy played in the waiting room with one of the students. Both kids were thrilled, and, honestly, it was a break for me in a long weekend day of single-parenting. The students helped to watch, entertain, and stimulate my boys. They gave the boys each a small gift, reimbursed me for travel expenses, and bought me a coffee. They also talked to me about the scientific questions they were testing. It was nice to feel that I was helping them out, and they were helping me.
The extraordinary number of universities in the Boston area means that in almost every neighborhood there is a similar lab full of enthusiastic young scientists hoping to study child development. This spring, my own lab at MIT will be one of them. One of our studies, for example, will be about the very earliest sources of infants’ social learning: Using a measurement of their brain activity, we will try to tell when infants are looking at something because they like it versus because they find it interesting. My younger son, at 12 months old, was one of the first children to participate in this study. While bringing him into the lab on a weekend for the study, I was again reminded of why I like participating in research — an interesting and thought-provoking research question; a quiet, private room full of toys and free snacks; babysitting for the big brother; and a small prize at the end. Among all the family-friendly activities in the Boston area, participating in research should definitely be on your list!
If you’re interested in getting involved, contact a developmental psychology lab near you! Here are just a few examples:
Boston University: bu.edu/cdl
UMass Boston: umassbostonbabylab.weebly.com
Boston College: https://www2.bc.edu/sara-cordes/lab/participate.html