Their Research is Child's Play

by Mary Ellen Butler

"Let me open the freezer and get out the cake," Jeannie says.

She goes to a yellow container and pulls out a large, heavy pan.

Jeannie struggles to carry the pan to the table. She carefully sets it down. She steps back, turns around and announces in a cheery, motherly tone:

"It's party time!"

A harried homemaker, plowing through an annual kiddy birthday bash?

No, a four-year-old girl putting on her own imaginary celebration.

Jeannie (not her real name) attends the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center on Atherton Street just south of campus. The center is run by the University's Institute for Human Development.

In addition to providing half- and full-day educational programs for children ages 3 and 4, it also sponsors child-development studies by professors and graduate students--research that has resulted in some seminal findings during the center's 67 years of operation.

It was here that the Bayley Scales of Infant Development were formulated by Nancy Bayley, a member of the original research staff at the institute and the center's first administrator. The scales, used worldwide, measure a young child's physical and intellectual development against standardized norms.

Other University researchers, including psychologists Jack and Jean Block, accurately predicted success in later life by studying the early development of a group of children, then tracking them as they grew to adulthood.

Right now, researchers are exploring a number of subjects, says Carole Higgins, research coordinator and liaison between the center and the institute.

Among them are "how children express narrative through artwork, strategies some children use to engage other children in verbal interaction and conversation, and the relation between parental attachment and how a child interacts in social settings with peers."

For many years, the center has run programs for 3- and 4-year olds out of two adjoining classrooms and play yards. One classroom features two half-day nursery school classes, the other a full-day child-care center.

Traditionally, the center has enrolled some children of community residents in addition to faculty and staff offspring. But beginning in July 1995, both programs will become full-day and will enroll exclusively children of campus faculty and staff.

Because all other campus child-care sites serve children of students, the center's expansion to 48 full-day slots will be "a real gift to campus staff and faculty," says Rebecca Tracy, the child-care program's head teacher.

Judith Gruber, associate professor of political science, and Carol Hoffman, director of CARE Services for Faculty and Staff, agree.

Gruber and Hoffman co-chair the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Dependent Care, which has worked for several years to increase the availability of campus-affiliated child care. "We're extremely gratified at the expansion of quality child care for faculty and staff," says Hoffman.

And to assist staff who may be unable to afford the monthly $515 fee, a new effort is in the works.

The advisory committee and the institute, under the direction of psychology professor Joseph Campos, plan to raise scholarship money to help more lower-income staff members enroll their children. "We all very much hope this can happen," says Tracy.

Children will be eligible to enroll next July if they'll be between 2.9 years and 4.9 years by next August.

Once enrolled, children are invited to participate in research projects which, though serious studies of how humans develop, are designed to be non-intimidating. Most children enjoy taking part, but aren't forced to if they don't want to.

As they play, the children also are unobtrusively observed by graduate students and other researchers through one-way windows. All research topics must meet approval of the Institute of Human Development.

A recent visit to the center showed that scholarly research is the last thing on the kids' minds. They don't play to the galleries. They play with each other, using their vivid imaginations.

Jeannie's "cake," for example, is a rectangular baking pan full of wet sand. No wonder it's heavy.

The "table" is the border of a large sandbox. The "guests" consist of one other 4-year-old, as deeply involved in the party as her hostess.

"Only the birthday girl's cupcakes go here," the other girl says in that same sing-song maternal voice. She arranges small cups full of wet sand, just so. The two keep up a running dialogue as they "frost" the cake, cut it in squares with a spatula, and heap "servings" onto plates.

Sure enough, another 4-year-old walks up, surveys the scene and asks, "Can I have a piece?"

Child development researchers would probably call the imaginary birthday party a "strategy some children use to engage other children in verbal interaction and conversation."

Jeannie and her buddy would probably call it a success.


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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