What do babies look at?
Because we know that babies and toddlers look for longer at things they find interesting, we can time how long they look at pictures to tell us about what they’re learning. To do this, we show them pictures on a computer screen and use eye-trackers to record where they look, and for how long. In an eye-tracking study, children either sit on their caregiver’s lap or in a high-chair in front of a computer screen. The eye-tracker is a small box that sits underneath the screen. Because the pupils of the eye are darker than the surrounding iris, the eye-tracker can compute where children are looking and for how long. These studies last for a few minutes at most, and allow us to explore what babies have learned from what we show them, and what they find interesting. Our first studies of curiosity-based learning show that one-year-olds are systematic learners who repeatedly compare similar images.
Importantly to the Curiosity Project, we know that children play an active role in their own learning – they choose what to look at, and for how long. To explore this active learning, we will also be using a cutting-edge eye-tracking technique known as gaze contingent eye-tracking. In these studies we will show children images on a computer screen, but this time, where they look changes what they see. Amazingly, recent research using this method has shown that babies as young as 6- to 8-months-old can learn to control what they see by looking in a particular place. We use gaze-contingent eye-tracking to explore how babies can choose what to learn from based on their own curiosity.
What do toddlers play with?
Recording where children look in this way has told us a lot about how what they see determines what they learn. But learning in the real world is different: once they learn how to reach and grasp, children have control over what they are learning from. They can move objects closer, turn them around for a different view, hold more than one object at once – and in doing so, they construct their own learning environment. However, as yet we don’t know what children learn best from: for example, when you let a toddler play freely, will s/he prefer to learn from challenging toys, or simple ones? Because almost all of children’s day-to-day learning happens through play, it’s important for us to understand what happens during this curiosity-based exploration.
We use new technology to conduct some of the first studies into toddler’s real-world, curiosity-based learning. We give toddlers specially-designed, 3D printed toys and let them play. First, we first record what they play with and for how long, to explore whether they pick toys up in a particular order; for example, do they start off with the simple toys then work their way up to the complex ones? At the same time, we use head-mounted eye-trackers to shed light on exactly what toddlers see during play. This exciting new technology consists of a non-invasive, lightweight headset with two small cameras that record the child’s eye and their visual scene. Linking these two video feeds allows us to calculate exactly what toddlers are looking at, giving us a detailed picture of what toddlers choose to learn from.
Marina Loucaides‘ doctoral research takes this technique further, looking at how two-year-olds learn when they hear names for the objects they’re playing with. Importantly, these studies will show how children learn in the real world, allowing future researchers to develop new ways of supporting early development.