How do babies and toddlers make sense of the world around them? Do they see animals as different from people and objects? Do babies think you should share your cookies equally with others?
These are some of the questions that a new research programme on early childhood learning by Nanyang Technological University Singapore (NTU Singapore) will try to answer. The studies will provide insights into whether children are born with early abstract expectations or whether they learn through socialisation.
An on-site research facility will be set up at KidsSTOP™, the children's science centre in Singapore. NTU researchers will conduct a series of experiments over five years, with each experiment targeting about 200 participants.
The research programme is led by NTU Singapore psychology Assistant Professor Setoh Pei Pei who heads the university's Early Cognition Laboratory. Bringing scientists and visitors together, the partnership aims to promote citizen science - public participation in scientific research, where visitors are part of science as it unfolds.
"This research aims to improve our understanding of moral and prosocial behaviour in infants and toddlers. While such studies are common in the United States, studies in the Asian context are relatively fewer. To fill this gap, the NTU team will carry out a series of research projects targeted at children from three months to six years old," said Asst Prof Setoh.
"I hope to share with parents what their babies are thinking about, as well as knowledge about the cognitive, social and moral development of their children. The results will also allow early childhood educators to develop better learning programmes for children."
The research programme will start on 11 August. NTU Singapore researchers on-site will share more details with visitors who are keen to participate. Information will also be shared via KidsSTOP™'s and Early Cognition Lab's electronic direct mailers, website, Facebook page and posters.
KidsSTOP™ non-member visitors will enjoy free admission and KidsSTOP™ members will receive a token of appreciation for their participation. Participants' responses will be kept confidential. At the end of a study, participants will also receive the research findings through email.
Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive, Science Centre Singapore said, "We are delighted at the opportunity for KidsSTOP™ to collaborate on this project as the children's science centre is not just for exposing children to science in their formative years, but also for science-based research. This partnership will help provide deeper insights into children's cognitive behaviour which we can consider when developing and designing our exhibits and programmes.
"At the same time, we also hope our collaboration will uncover and encourage pro-social skills among children which can lead to a more gracious society. This partnership is potentially the first of many to come, where research on early childhood learning in science, technology, engineering and maths is conducted to spark curiosity and encourage love for these subjects."
Professor Alan Chan, NTU Singapore Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, said, "Research should always benefit society. There is no reason why it has to be confined to the university campus. In this case, moving the laboratory to where parents and children are would both benefit the participants and advance our research in developmental psychology. The results will help us better understand the behaviour of children. I am also happy to see that our undergraduates will be part of the research team as research experience forms an important element of education."
How the research is carried out
Different experiments will be created for different age groups. The first of two experiments which start this August and last for a year tests children between two to four years old on their notion of fairness. The child, accompanied by his parent, will interact with two puppets by distributing items between them.
The process will be video-recorded and analysed afterwards. How the child distributes the items, whether equally or unequally, will shed light on early reasoning about fairness and group loyalty.
The other experiment targets children one to three years of age. The child will watch videos on social acting. For example, a person disguises her true feelings by saying that she likes the cookie given to her by her friend, even though in private, she actually dislikes the taste of those cookies. The child's reaction is monitored, and compared with the reactions of another group of children who will see social acting towards an outgroup member such as a stranger.
By tracking babies' eye movement as they watch these videos, the researchers can tell which part of the scene they are paying attention to and their expectations about various social scenarios.
Valuable learning experience for NTU Singapore students
The research collaboration provides a first-hand opportunity for NTU Singapore students to be exposed to psychology research in action. About 10 NTU students will join the research project as research assistants each semester. Another group of NTU students will also visit KidsSTOP™ as part of their coursework to observe how psychology research is carried out. The students will then propose new studies on child cognition that have real-life applications.
Samuel Chan, a Year One psychology student at NTU Singapore said, "Being part of this research programme is a unique opportunity for students like me to contribute directly to meaningful research. Through our observations, we will be able to apply what we learn about children in the classroom and translate our knowledge to real life settings. It will be a valuable learning experience."
NTU Singapore's Early Cognition Lab located at KidsSTOP™ will be open from 2pm to 6pm daily. On weekends, it will be open for additional hours from 9.30am to 1.30pm. Interested participants are advised to contact firstname.lastname@example.org before visiting the Lab.