The Wollongong Infant Learning Lab (WILL) is a team of developmental researchers from the School of Psychology at UOW who conduct research on infant cognition, parent-child interactions, and well-being in pregnancy and early parenting.
The team, led by Associate Professor Jane Herbert, provide parents, educators, and policy makers with evidence-based information on how best to understand and support early learning and development.
With the support of local families, they are developing scientific understanding about how learning, memory, communication, and motor development, interact and change across the first years of life. Although few adults can recall memories from before their third birthday (a phenomenon referred to as childhood amnesia), their research (and from many others) shows that even very young infants learn and remember new information.
“For example, we use a procedure in which infants are shown a series of actions with a novel toy. Typically a 6-month old can remember this event for 24-hours. However memory retrieval fails if we make even small changes to the colour of the toy, the person who demonstrated the actions, or the room where learning occurred”, says Jane.
WILL is currently recruiting parents and infants (under 12 months) for a study on how the development of motor abilities influences the development of learning and memory. In their current study, 6-, 9-, and 12-month old infants (with their parent/carer) spend an hour in the lab participating in deferred imitation tasks, and being videoed while they physically explore one of their rooms. This research aims to advance scientific understanding of the normal stages of infancy and the dynamic relationship across motor and cognitive domains.
“Watching a baby crawl or take his or her first steps is a memorable event for parents. However, for the infant these experiences are transformative as it provides them with experiences and learning opportunities critical for cognitive development. With developing motor skill, infants become able to actively explore and make decisions, transverse greater distance, and control their proximity to objects and people,” says Jane.
In other studies for older children, the team also investigates whether books read repetitively are beneficial for a child’s learning.
“Books can provide children with new knowledge and experiences, but children learn best from real life interactions with other people. For example, in a deferred imitation task, 18-month olds remember a sequence of novel actions with an object shown by a real-life demonstrator for two weeks. When this same information is presented in a picture book, infants fail to show learning unless the number of times they see this event is at least doubled.”
Repetition aids learning from books because it increases the child’s learning opportunities. Even a simple story book like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle contains lots of complex words (e.g., cocoon, salami) and ideas (e.g., healthy eating, days of the week, counting, metamorphosis) and colourful illustrations.
“We don’t read a book aloud in exactly the same way each time, so each re-read provides the child with more knowledge and opportunities for discussion. These experiences promote the child’s cognitive skills, as well as developing the relationship between parent and child through a shared familiar activity,” Says Jane.
Being a parent is a hard job and there is no official handbook. Every child, every parent, and every day is different. Researchers know this only too well - despite decades of research on early memories, they cannot predict the exact age or content of any one individual’s first memory about themselves.
The research at the WILL focuses primarily on understanding the abilities of groups of infants at a particular age rather than on one individual child or parent, or on providing advice about parenting.
“To date we know that individual differences in the experiences that infants encounter in their broader daily lives, such as the opportunity to sleep or growing up in a bilingual household, impact positively on memory performance. Our research shows that access to age-appropriate, rich, and varied educational experiences are crucial for knowledge acquisition, and support healthy cognitive development in children,” says Jane.
If families have general questions about their child’s development or about parenting, WILL suggests visiting the website ‘raisingchildren.net.au’ which provides up-to-date, scientifically validated, information for Australian parents. The research by WILL, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the UOW Faculty of Social Sciences will ultimately contribute to scientific knowledge on normal stages of cognitive development and be included on such websites.
Pictured below: Dr Jane Herbert in the lab