A trip to the Babylab

This is a blog post we’ve been meaning to write for a while. Back in February 2020 Polly took her little one to Birkbeck’s Babylab, to take part in a study about toddler’s language development. The study was in three parts. Firstly, participants watch a short film of different video clips on a computer, whilst technology on the computer monitor tracks their eye gaze. Secondly, each child is filmed playing with some toys with their adult for a short period of time. And finally, children are assessed on whether they can complete a variety of tasks that (we guess) are designed to look at different areas of the child’s development, such as language, mathematical and physical development. Polly had reservations about how her child would react to the situation and tasks, but he was contented throughout and the researcher was very focused on putting his needs first and reiterated the study could stop at any time if he became unhappy or unwilling to take part, which was very reassuring.

What we find interesting about this study is it highlights the different ways that research with and about children can be conducted. The Babylab forms part of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. Like the researcher conducting this experiment, we imagine that some people reading this post would consider themselves to fall within the discipline of psychology. We talk in our book about how different disciplines view children in different ways. For instance, we suggest that those in the psychology discipline might view a child as “one who can be measured, counted and categorised” (2019, p.126) whilst, for example, those within the education discipline might view a child as “one who can learn, achieve or fail”.

The way in which disciplines view children will impact on how they choose to conduct research in relation to them. Whilst research in early childhood is perhaps more likely to take place in an environment familiar to the child, such as in their home or educational setting, often psychological research takes place in a laboratory environment that is new to the child. Woodhead and Faulkner (2008) suggest that this is one issue with psychological research. They question the “appropriateness of applying principles of experimental design and laboratory measurement as tools for understanding and shaping children’s lives”. What this means is that if we conduct controlled experiments with children in laboratory environments, they may not give us a picture that is representative of the child, as when children are in a new environment they might act differently to at home. In fact they cite the psychologist Bronfenbrenner, who argues that conducting experiments with children in artificial environments demonstrates ‘the strange behaviour of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time’ (1979: 19, cited in Woodhead and Faulkner, 2008: 22). Yet it must be said, in the study Polly’s little one took part in, she does feel his behaviours were representative of how he would normally act. And the advantage of conducting research on children in controlled environments is that researchers can standardise what happens by controlling variables, and it’s easier for other people to replicate the study. Can you think of other positives or negatives?

We wouldn’t choose to conduct research with children in artificial environments, but that doesn’t mean it’s the “wrong” thing to do. As we’ve said, different people view children in different ways, which impacts on how they choose to conduct research with them. If you are interested in reading more about this, Gallagher has written a lovely accessible chapter on this in Researching with Children and Young People, introducing the words ontology, epistemology and methodology in an accessible way. And indeed, how you choose the best way to answer your research questions needs to be informed by what your research questions are. We’d be interested to hear your views on the different ways in which research can be approached, and whether you favour some over others.

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