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Brain games

The University’s Cognitive Development Research Group wants to find out how children learn their first words.

CDRG is always looking for parents and children who are willing to devote their time in the name of research and a few goodies. The lab has been a part of the psychology program since 2007.

Studies focus on language learning and include exercises that deal with different objectives, such as perceptual comparison and contextual cuing. Researchers are able to collect data based on a 45-minute observation of infants and children up to six years of age.

Hanako Yoshida, director of the Cognitive Research Group, said the environment is enjoyable for both parents and children.

‘Children love the attention and positive feedback,’ said’ Yoshida.’ ‘They enjoy the activities, and the parents are excited and interested in the research.’

Incentives include books, T-shirts, stuffed animals and other small tokens of appreciation.

With the written consent and physical presence of parents, the researcher and child interact with each other in a playroom setting that includes various toys, books.

As parents fill out paperwork, researchers often play with the child in the waiting room.

‘It helps the kid become familiar with us, so when we run the experiment it helps them loosen up, it helps parents loosen up. It helps us get familiar with the child,’ psycology junior and research assistant Kevin Darby said.

While thinking they are only playing games, the children go through a series of tasks, which are games that can include cards, touch screens and table-top toys. Depending upon the attentiveness of the child, children sometimes run for two to seven minutes.’ ‘

In one experiment, a small video camera is attached to a child’s head. Researchers analyze each frame and sound in the footage for crucial data.
Researchers are also interested in what the child says, while others may be interested in how many faces are in the child’s view as he or she solves a problem.
‘There are studies where there’s a camera on the child’s head and a camera watching the child play with their parents and (I) decode what they’re saying, what they’re looking at, and all these things,’ psychology senior Jaymie Allen said.
There are some differences between developing an experiment about adult subjects and an experiment that researches children.

Darby said adults participating in psychology experiments typically read directions from a computer screen then direct themselves through the process.

Young children may be told to perform a simple task, such as watching a short movie, and researchers will then gather data from their hypothesis by watching the children’s reactions or eye movements.

‘You have to explain things differently. You have to make sure they understand,’ Darby said.

Darby said the children are easy to work with, and that the biggest obstacle in conducting research is the recruitment process. To remedy this, the lab began offering $10 payments to parents who bring in children.

Darby said open and effective communication is essential in getting parents to understand what the research is about and how it will be conducted.’ He said parents who participate do it because they want to contribute to society.

Yoshida said that information gained from the research can help parents make better decisions for their kids and themselves. The group has about 300 parents in its database, some of whom participate on a consistent basis. The data collected is confidential.

Although the experiments are non-invasive and game-focused, and the studies have been approved by the UH Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects, other factors make it a challenge for the research group to recruit subjects.’ The group has had to find ways to increase participation.

Yoshida said not being in a residential area makes it hard for families to find the money to drive in to the city.’ Because of those reasons, the group offers to reimburse their gas money if they are driving from over 25 miles away. In some cases, the researchers will make house visits at the convenience of the family.

The group is working on making its laboratory become more recognizable to potential clients.

Along with their detailed Web site, members have contacted establishments such as daycares, fairs, schools and family-frequented places such as McDonald’s in order to pass out small newsletters.’

The newsletters provide information about the current studies and contain vivid pictures of what some of the tasks will look like.

‘We’re doing everything we can possibly do,’ Yoshida said.

She said that the research being conducted is beneficial for everyone involved, including parents, the scientific community, schools and students.’

Some of the goals of the research group are to submit a good amount of quality data to local and national conferences as well as obtaining funding to go to conferences – in order to learn the data of others.’

Yoshida said it is important to have a deep understanding of the topic, questions and explanations that arise during research.

‘We want to provide as many chances and opportunities for undergraduate students at UH to understand what basic research means and the significance of findings, relevant to the theoretical issues and practical issues of the real world,’ Yoshida said.

One researcher found working with children to be a new experience.

‘I felt like there was this language barrier. It’s hard for me to reduce myself to being like ‘Look at this! Oh, toy!’ I felt myself being awkward, like ‘So, how old are you?” Allen said.

Darby said that he felt comfortable dealing with children since he grew up with a little sister.

‘Some kids are kind of hard to work with because they’re not comfortable with me. Some of them seem scared to death of me,’ Darby said. ‘Depends on the kid, depends on the situation.’

‘You can’t really help thinking things. I haven’t ever thought, ‘This kid is stupid.’ I have thought, ‘I wish they would pay more attention.’ I have thought, ‘This kid is very smart”.

Students with children who may want to participate are encouraged to call the laboratory office at (713) 743-4876 or e-mail the researchers at [email protected].’

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