Experimenting
with
Babies

50 Amazing Science Projects

You Can Perform on Your Kid

Try This Experiment on Your Baby!

Project name:

"Bat" vs. "Tab"

Age range:

14 to 16 months

Research area:

Language development

Try this simple experiment on your baby to learn about language development.

The experiment:

Conduct this experiment when your baby is 14 months old, and again at 16 months.

For this experiment, gather eight objects (or pictures of objects) that are unfamiliar to your baby.

You'll present these objects to your baby in pairs. During each presentation, show one of the objects to your baby and label it several times with one of the nonsense words from Column 1 below. Then show the other object and label it several times with one of the nonsense words from Column 2. For instance, you might say, "Look, a (label)! This is a (label). Do you see the (label)? See, I'm holding a (label)."

Table A

COLUMN 1 COLUMN 2
bode pote
boute pid

Once you've labeled each object individually, hold up both objects simultaneously and ask your baby to look at one of the objects using the label you gave it. For instance, if you're holding up the "bode" and the "pote," you might say, "Look at the pote! Where's the pote? Do you see the pote?"

Make note of whether your baby looks longer at the correct object or the other object.

Now, repeat the procedure, this time using the nonsense words below.

Table B

COLUMN 1 COLUMN 2
dawb tup
doop tib

The hypothesis:

At 14 months old, your baby will have an easier time correctly identifying the object associated with the target label (as measured by his looking times) when the words come from Table A.

But at 16 months, your baby will show no difference in his ability to look at the correct object, whether the words come from Table A or Table B.

The research:

In a March 2013 study, researchers studying language development conducted an experiment to see whether a word's phonetic structure affected babies' ability to learn the word.

First, a little linguistics lesson. There are different types of consonant sounds. Some, such as "b" or "p," are made with the lips. These are called labial consonants. Others, such as "d" or "t," are made with the front of the tongue. These are called coronal consonants.

It turns out than in English, French, and several other languages, the proportion of words that begin with a labial consonant followed by a coronal consonant (we'll call them LC words) is higher than the proportion of words that begin with a coronal consonant followed by a labial consonant (we'll call them CL words). Moreover, when you look at the first 50 or so words that babies pick up, the proportion of LC words is particularly high.

So, the researchers wanted to find out whether the fact that LC words are more common affects how easy it is for a baby to learn a new word.

In their experiment, they exposed one group of French-learning babies to LC words, such as those in Table A, and another group of French-learning babies to CL words, such as those in Table B. They then used eye-tracking equipment to measure the babies' responses when they were prompted to look at one of the two objects.

The study found that among 14-month-olds, the babies were better able to identify the correct object (as measured by looking times) when the words were LC; with 16-month-olds, however, there was no significant difference between LC and CL words.

The researchers concluded that the phonetic structure of a word can affect a baby's ability to learn that word in languages where that structure is more or less common -- but, at least in the case of LC versus CL words, the influence only comes into play in the early stages of language acquisition.

The takeaway:

While these findings are certainly important to language-development researchers who are seeking to tease out how, exactly, babies come to acquire language, it's important for parents to know that the results of this study shouldn't significantly affect how they help their children pick up new words, although it might help explain why babies pick up certain words in the order that they do.

So, if you're trying to teach your baby a CL word and she hasn't quite grasped it yet, don't worry. It may take her a little longer to acquire, but eventually, its phonetic structure will not be an impediment.

The study:

Gonzalez-Gomez, Nayeli; Poltrock, Silvana; Nazzi, Thierry. "A 'Bat' Is Easier to Learn than a 'Tab': Effects of Relative Phonotactic Frequency on Infant Word Learning," PLoS ONE 8(3): e59601, March 2013.


Like this experiment?

Buy "Experimenting With Babies," which contains 50 other fascinating science projects you can perform on your kid. It makes a great gift for new parents!

Try This Experiment on Your Baby!

Project name:

The Look Is the Hook

Age range:

13 to 15 months

Research area:

Perception, Cognitive development

Try this simple experiment on your baby to learn about perception and cognitive development.

The experiment:

Perform this experiment when your baby is between 13 and 15 months old.

For this experiment, you'll need two adults: one to participate in the experiment and one to observe it.

Have one adult sit at a table on which two similar-looking toys are placed, one to his left and one to his right, and place your baby in a high chair opposite him.

Now, you'll perform four 15-second sequences, each separated by a pause of several seconds. For each sequence, the observer should keep track of which of the two toys your baby looks at longer.

1) The adult should turn his head and gaze toward one of the toys for about 15 seconds.

2) The adult should repeat the action, gazing toward the same toy for another 15 seconds.

3) The adult should place his hand between the two toys and stare at the hand for 15 seconds.

4) The adult should exit the room, leaving the two toys undisturbed on the table.

The hypothesis:

During the first and second sequences, your baby will look longer at the toy the adult gazes toward.

During the third sequence, she will continue to look longer at the toy the adult gazed toward.

During the fourth sequence, she will look slightly longer at the other toy.

The research:

In a 2011 study, 14-month-old babies were shown video clips in which an adult gazed toward one of two toys.

Then, one group of the babies was shown a video clip in which the adult stared at her hand, rather than either of the toys, while another group was shown a video clip in the toys were present but the adult was not.

The study found that the babies in the first group looked much longer at the toy the adult had previously gazed toward, but the babies in the first group looked slightly longer at the other toy.

The study's author says the results support the idea that 14-month-olds form an association between a person and an object after having seen the person gazing at the object, because the babies preferentially looked at the object even after the person had stopped gazing at it.

The study:

Paulus, Markus. "How infants relate looker and object: evidence for a perceptual learning account of gaze following in infancy," Developmental Science 14:6:1301-1310, November 2011.


Like this experiment?

Buy "Experimenting With Babies," which contains 50 other fascinating science projects you can perform on your kid. It makes a great gift for new parents!