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The online edition of the magazine published by The Johns Hopkins University, Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences


Serious About Child's Play

Assistant professors Lisa Feigenson (left) and Justin Halberda (second from left) at work in a decidedly cushy lab.

In the new Laboratory for Child Development in the Krieger School, there are no test tubes, white lab coats, or microscopes. There is nary a Petri dish or microscope in sight.

Instead, the walls glow with purple and yellow paint and are adorned with the images of spotted giraffes, grinning lions, and wrinkly gray elephants. Baskets of Crayola-bright toys and chunky board books sit invitingly on the floor of the waiting room.

It may look loose, friendly, and casual, but every item, every angle, and every hue have been painstakingly chosen to make the new space comfortable for the babies and young children who are to be studied here.

"We're interested in how babies and children process information, and in order for them to do that in the most natural way possible, they have to be in a setting that is comfortable and that puts them at ease," says Justin Halberda, 30, the assistant psychological and brain sciences professor who co-directs the lab with his research partner and wife, Lisa Feigenson, 29, also an assistant professor in the department.

The pair of researchers arrived at Johns Hopkins from Harvard University last summer and spent most of the hot, humid days overseeing construction of the lab's rooms, choosing paint colors and toys, and soliciting volunteers for the research, all of whom come from the community.

When the lab finally opened in early fall, it marked the culmination of the young couple's dream. Though their research interests diverge-Feigenson specializes in the study of how infants keep track of and remember objects, and Halberda studies word-learning and logical reasoning-their goal of understanding how babies and young children perceive and contemplate the world around them is the same.

"I am interested in the innate foundations of human babies' and children's ability to count and to group objects into sets," says Feigenson. "That means I am usually working with babies from about five to 14 months of age. [Justin] is interested in how children learn to reason logically through everyday problems. So his work usually involves older children, from 2 to 5 years of age."

Despite the differences in the researchers' interests, the form their studies take is much the same: simple games that babies, children, and even their parents (who must, after all, be willing to volunteer them for the studies) seem to enjoy.

"Oh, the infants and children in the studies are just having fun," says Halberda. "In some cases, the child watches as I make a bunch of small, stuffed animals engage in a race and I ask for their help. Or, I stand them in front of a large screen that shows two objects, and they move around and point to one depending upon what word I say. For the baby studies, Lisa often has the baby sit in an infant seat and watch a little 'show' of toys or objects or even animation. We then record the baby's behavior to measure how long he or she spends looking at an object."

Halberda and Feigenson say they can learn a lot about the mind and thought processes of a young child from such deceptively simple exercises. That knowledge, in turn, lends much to larger questions about human development.

"From this kind of study, we learn what it is to be human," Halberda says. "We understand ourselves, who we are, where we've come from, and why it is that we think the way we do. Understanding cognitive development also helps us understand aging and the mental challenges we face as we age. The knowledge we gain from this research will help all of us live fuller, healthier lives. What's more, it's a lot of fun."

- Lisa De Nike



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