Posted August 17, 2011

Temple infant lab helps researchers understand how kids learn best

Infant Lab

How do kids learn best? Do they need drills and direct instruction, or time to play, interact and create?

These questions lie at the heart of what some in the U.S. are calling an education crisis, marked by escalating pressure on parents to cultivate little geniuses by buying the latest electronic "educational" gadgets, increasing demands on teachers to improve standardized test scores.

And every day these questions are asked — in myriad forms — by researchers at Temple University's Infant Lab. The lab is led by two of the country’s most distinguished cognitive psychologists specializing in childhood development, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Nora Newcombe.

Approximately 8-10 studies are run simultaneously in the lab's three experimental spaces by an army of friendly, dedicated graduate students who want to know more about how children learn. Funded through the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Infant Lab's results are not only published in academic journals and books, but have also been featured in the national media and the popular press.

"Investigators in this lab don't just hide and squirrel away in a dark room with a microscope." said Hirsh-Pasek. "In this lab we interact with children to see how their minds work and how they learn. Then we can advise how best to teach — and how toys, school curriculum and museum exhibits can best support their processes."

So what does the latest research at the lab reveal?

"What we find — what we know from years of psychological study — is that passive learning is generally not as good as active learning,” said Hirsh-Pasek. “Learning needs to be active, engaged and meaningful.”

In the area of language development, Infant Lab researchers look at how much of language learning relies on native ability and how much is environmental. Investigators have found that children are more successful at learning a new word if they are provided with a specific context and live interaction.

"We found that if we use playful learning, young children could understand what a hoe is, for example," said Hirsh-Pasek. “When they are playing farmer and they're active and engaged and they understand that a hoe has something to do with farming and making a garden better, all of the sudden things start to make sense for these young kids.”

Piecing together children’s understanding of space is another area of focus. Spatial thinking is part of everyday life, say researchers, and people tap into their spatial skills often without being aware they are doing so. For example, packing a bag, writing a to-do list and reading a graph all involve spatial thinking. Spatial skills are particularly important for the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

Researchers at the lab look at the skills involved when kids build a paper airplane (spatial visualization) or fit together the pieces in a puzzle (mental rotation). Armed with information regarding when and how spatial skills develop, the researchers believe that better tools can be developed to help parents and teachers foster spatial learning.

In one recent study, investigators found that when a parent is playing with blocks with his or her child, the child is learning the words 'over' and 'under', 'around' and 'through.'

"When they're learning those kinds of spatial terms and becoming conversant in that vocabulary, it relates to their later mathematical and engineering competence," said Hirsh-Pasek. "The bottom line is that we have to bring play and playful learning back into our early childhood curriculum and our homes."