Calling all babies: The Rutgers Early Learning Project

Last week I attended my first Montgomery Mom's Club meeting, excited to meet more moms in the area and to introduce Maddy to more kids her age.  Most meetings feature a guest speaker on relevant topics and that day the group welcomed members of the Rutgers Early Learning Project from the Rutgers Early Learning Lab.  Four of the women who run the program, Dr. Vivian Hsu Yang (Assoc. Director), Stella Lee (Lab Tech), Jessica Creesen (Lab Tech) and Amy Bullman Giles (Project Assit.), spoke about the short-term study they run, under the direction of program director Dr. Carolyn Rovee-Collier, to document the learning process and memory with babies from 3 months to 2 years in their own homes. In fact, the Rutgers Early Learning Project has been quoted in most early development textbooks, national magazines like Parents, American Health and Good Housekeeping, and on TV shows like PBS's "Childhood" series and CNN's "Science Watch."

When Rovee-Collier began her studies more than 30 years ago, most people didn't think babies could learn and very few studies were performed.  But from her initial study with colorful baby mobiles, she found that infants do learn and can remember at various lengths.  The current project includes 3 tasks, all of which are performed in the baby's own home environment with a parent present.  While the 3 tasks involve different "games", they all involve 2-4 days of visits of about 5-15minutes depending on the study. They all include a control test and some form of extinction or non-reinforcement test to test for memory and retention.
  1. Mobile Game (2, 3 or 6 mos): A colorful mobile is brought in to the baby's room and a ribbon is placed around his or her ankle. Tests show the babies learn that as they move their ankle, so does the mobile and it becomes a playful game. 
  2. Train Game (6-24months): The baby learns that pushing a lever will make a toy train move around a track. The train apparatus includes colorful fabric walls and realistic figurines which can be changed to test for learning and retention. 
  3. Puppet Imitation Game (6-24months): The baby is shown two hand puppets.  He or she watches as the hand of one puppet is removed in order to ring a bell inside. The next puppet is then returned to see if the baby attempts to remove the hand to ring a bell.  Tests did show that babies reacted appropriately with the 2nd puppet, but the younger babies had better retention when shown the 2nd puppet immediately rather than with a longer break in time. 
In addition to performing these tasks, the lab staff studies how verbal skill and motor ability relates to memory and learning. Most parents are asked to observe and record their baby over short periods of time.  With their permission, task moderators also videotape the puppet game in order to record results. 

At the conclusion of the study, babies are given a Certificate of Appreciation and parents receive a report on the findings. 

If you're interested in learning more about this volunteer project, visit or call 732-445-4819.

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