We visit ToddlerLab, a London research centre that uses virtual reality to unlock the secrets of the infant mind.
NEW JOB OPPORTUNITY - Does this sound like you?
Birkbeck University in central London is looking for its next cutting-edge scientist. No experience necessary, and no qualifications required. Full ‘on the job training’. The role includes plenty of time to explore your own interests with our new and exciting equipment, in an extremely low pressure, relaxed setting.
Oh... and you must be between 2 and 4 years old.
Wait? What? You want toddlers to make scientific breakthroughs?
What's going on inside a toddler's mind?
Toddlers are known for their very strong feelings over exactly which cup they want their drink in, blossoming independence, and infectious energy levels. Rarely do they impress us with their scientific methodology. However, the world’s first dedicated ToddlerLab is putting nippers front and centre of neuroscientific discovery.
Researchers at the ToddlerLab are interested in the development of the brain in childhood. Topics of interest include the onset of empathy and impulse control. Previous studies have also uncovered the mixed positive and negative effects of touchscreen devices in toddlerhood, how infants process language and whether pre-schoolers can follow instructions whilst maintaining focus on an end goal (in this case building a Duplo house). Volunteer families register here even before the birth of a child, which gives the lab a unique ability to monitor the development of neurotypical as well as neurodivergent children over a prolonged period of time.
Housed in an unassuming modern terraced building in central Bloomsbury, you would be forgiven for walking straight past ToddlerLab. However, take a step inside and you'll find yourself in a multistorey childhood heaven with a scientific twist. This is a unique laboratory. It's less about lab coats, Bunsen burners and safety specs, and more Duplo, Paw Patrol and crayons. Researchers here are delving into the brains of these mini-scientists to find out what every parent since the dawn of time has wondered: “What on earth is going on inside that brain of yours?”
Inside the ToddlerLab
Each floor creates a different reality. The preschool lab recreates a typical classroom setting with tiny tables and chairs. The home lab is a comfy and welcoming living room with sofas, toys and a wall-mounted TV. The nap lab, meanwhile, offers a cozy environment that even the most sleep-resistant baby couldn’t resist.
Children are at the centre of everything the team here do, so creating a “home from home”, with comfortable and familiar environments for both parent and children is of paramount importance to enable study of naturalistic behaviours. However, despite all the effort put into the experimental spaces, Baby and ToddlerLab manager Tamsin Osborne notes that the children often get most excited about the tiny preschooler sized toilets, much to the amusement of parents!
Although each room is designed to look familiar and comforting, gaze upwards and you experience a bit of a Truman Show moment. The rooms are replete with motion trackers, cameras and speakers, all carefully strung from the walls and ceiling. Children are asked to wear various devices, such as ‘magic’ gloves, hats, bags and glasses. These devices monitor key biometrics such as heart and breathing rate. One particularly clever bit of wearable technology monitors the blood flow to specific areas of the brain. So-called functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) works by shining IR light into the brain; the levels reflected back depend on the amount of oxygenated blood in that region. This helps the researchers determine what part of the brain is being used for any given task.
Although such kit might look daunting, months and even years of research has gone into the design and specialist manufacturer of these devices, to ensure they are as comfortable as possible for the children to wear. Senior Research Laboratory Developer Dr Paola Pinti reminds us that “children aren’t just small adults”. Designing a piece of wearable tech for a child isn't just about scaling down the adult size – comfort, weight and ability to adjust are also important.
Virtual reality experiments
Dr Pinti’s lockdown project was to design and make specialist 3D glasses, complete with eye tracking technology for use within ToddlerLab's groundbreaking virtual reality space, known as the CAVE. Six projectors create a seamless surround display (including underfoot). The children become fully immersed in the 3-D virtual landscape. Place the 3D glasses on, and they're transported to the playpark of their dreams, at the foot of a beautiful mountainscape.
In the centre of the screen is a little cartoon elephant, blowing coloured bubbles from its trunk. Motion tracker gloves facilitate interaction with the virtual environment, allowing the bubbles to be popped with a simple and natural swipe of the hand. The game is infectious, calming and smile-inducing. Its real purpose, however, is to unlock our understanding of the development of impulse control. Children instinctively take to this novel technology like ducks to water, with little to no understanding of the pioneering work in which they are participating.
Using the facilities and expertise at the ToddlerLab, researcher Dr Liam Collins-Jones is developing a “new tool to look at brain development in neurodiverse conditions”, using light. Currently being tested on babies, he is looking at differences in the interplay between multiple areas of the brain as children interact with social (e.g. someone singing a nursery rhyme) and non-social (e.g. moving a toy) stimuli. He eventually believes that the technology can be modified for use in older children and once validated will possibly become a complementary monitoring technique for use within the naturalistic environment at the ToddlerLab.
How do I get involved?
The name ToddlerLab is actually a bit narrow for what goes on here. Yes, it's a hub of world-leading pioneers in toddler developmental research, but the team also facilitate studies from newborns all the way to 18-year-olds. Teenagers were a particular focus during virtual lockdown studies.
The lab has a database of approximately 5,500 children from newborn to 18 years old. All families are volunteers, and the vast majority come from personal recommendations, after a parent shares their positive experience with friends. Once on the database, parents will receive email notification of studies relevant to the age range of their children, and it is up to them whether they choose to participate.
Maybe your little Einstein will get their first taste of science at the ToddlerLab?
Images by the author, unless specified.