Psychologist to study how motor development changes infants’ learning experiences

NSF-funded project at UC Riverside will involve new methods for measuring infants’ daily learning experiences in the home

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Credit: UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif — John Franchak has long been interested in how learning a new motor skill, such as sitting or walking, changes how infants interact with their surroundings. He has now been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue this research question.

The four-year grant of nearly $755,000 will help Franchak, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, explore what aspects of learning to sit or walk help infants learn other skills by changing their day-to-day life. The grant will also help him determine how testing infants’ experiences across an entire day changes what psychologists know about infant motor development from brief laboratory sessions.

“A lot of recent research has linked the age of learning to sit and to walk with other important skills that infants learn later, such as learning to communicate or spatial reasoning,” Franchak said. “But no study has really asked what about learning to sit or walk changes the things that babies do in everyday life that might make, say, learning a language easier.”

Franchak explained that although learning to sit and walk creates new ways for infants to interact with other people and their surroundings, few studies outside of laboratory contexts have measured how motor development changes infants’ daily experiences.

“The typical way to measure motor experiences is to use a video camera to record how much infants sit, stand, walk, and crawl,” he said. “You can do that for 30 minutes, maybe an hour. Taking a short video like that is good for seeing how infants play, but it misses all of the other contexts in a typical day — like reading and meals — that might change motor experiences.”

Recording infants throughout a whole day is impossible with video. Further, having a researcher in the home for a whole day could be obtrusive; the researcher’s presence would change how infants and parents behave. To address this challenge, Franchak’s team will use miniature inertial sensors — Fitbits for babies — sewn into infants’ pants and a wearable audio recorder.

“The equipment is light and comfortable enough to wear for an entire day, so we can measure all of the infants’ experiences without an experimenter present,” he said. “We will help parents put the equipment on in the morning, and then pick it up from them the next day.”

Testing the same infants monthly will inform Franchak’s team on how motor and language experiences change before and after learning to sit or walk. Follow-up assessments of language and spatial abilities will let his team track the changes that help predict better language/spatial learning at a later age.

“One of the goals of pediatric physical therapists is to help infants with motor delays learn the motor skills they need to participate in daily activities,” Franchak said. “It’s helpful to figure out how typical infants’ ability to move supports learning important life skills, so that therapists know which motor activities are important for healthy development.”

Franchak will be joined in the research project by three graduate students and a team of about 20 undergraduates.

The title of the grant is “Developmental cascades: How motor development alters everyday learning experiences.”

The University of California, Riverside (http://www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California’s diverse culture, UCR’s enrollment is more than 24,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of almost $2 billion. To learn more, email [email protected]

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