We visit ToddlerLab, a London research center that uses virtual reality to unlock the secrets of the child’s mind.
NEW LANPOCO – 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 environment.
Oh… and you have to be between 2 and 4 years old.
Wait? What? Want kids to make scientific breakthroughs?
What goes on in a toddler’s mind?
Toddlers are known for their very strong feelings about exactly which cup they want their drink in, bubbly independence and infectious energy levels. They rarely impress us with their scientific methodology. However, the world’s first dedicated ToddlerLab puts tweezers front and center of neuroscience discovery.
Researchers at the ToddlerLab are interested in the development of the brain in childhood. Topics of interest include the beginning of empathy and impulse control. Previous studies have also discovered the mixed positive and negative effects of touchscreen devices in childhood, how babies process language and whether preschoolers can follow instructions while 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 laboratory a unique ability to monitor the development of neurotypical as well as neurodivergent children over a prolonged period of time.
Housed in a modest modern terraced building in central Bloomsbury, you’d be forgiven for walking straight past ToddlerLab. However, take a step inside and you’ll find yourself in a multi-story children’s 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 delve into the brains of these mini-scientists to find out what every parent has wondered since the dawn of time: “What the hell is going on inside that brain of yours?”
Inside the ToddlerLab
Each floor creates a different reality. The preschool laboratory recreates a typical classroom with small tables and chairs. The home lab is a comfortable and welcoming living room with sofas, toys and a wall-mounted TV. The nap lab, meanwhile, offers a cozy environment that even the sleepiest baby couldn’t resist.
Children are at the center of everything the team here do, so creating a ‘home from home’, with comfortable and familiar environments for both parents and children is of paramount importance to enable the study of naturalistic behaviours. However, despite all the effort put into the experimental spaces, Baby and ToddlerLab manager Tamsin Osborne notes that the children are often most excited about the tiny preschool toilets, much to the amusement of parents!
Although each room is designed to look familiar and comfortable, look up and you experience a bit of a Truman Show moment. The rooms are full of 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 respiratory rate. One particularly clever bit of wearable technology monitors 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 used for any given task.
Although such gear might look intimidating, months and even years of research have gone into the design and specialist manufacturer of these devices, to ensure that they are as comfortable as possible for the children to wear. Senior Research Lab Developer Dr. Paola Pinti reminds us that “children are not just small adults.” Designing a piece of wearable technology for a child isn’t just about downsizing to adult size – comfort, weight and adjustability are also important.
Virtual reality experiments
Dr Pinti’s key project was to design and make specialist 3D glasses, complete with eye-tracking technology for use within ToddlerLab’s innovative virtual reality space, known as the CAVE. Six projectors create a seamless surround screen (including underfoot). The children become fully immersed in the 3-D virtual landscape. Put on the 3D glasses, and they are transported to the playground of their dreams, at the foot of a beautiful mountain landscape.
In the center of the screen is a small cartoon elephant, blowing colorful bubbles from its trunk. Motion tracking gloves facilitate interaction with the virtual environment, allowing the bubbles to be popped with a simple and natural wave of the hand. The game is infectious, soothing and smile-inducing. Its real purpose, however, is to unlock our understanding of the development of impulse control. Children instinctively take to this new technology like ducks to water, with little or 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 looks at differences in the interaction between multiple areas of the brain when children interact with social (eg someone singing a nursery rhyme) and non-social (eg moving a toy) stimuli. He later believes that the technology can be modified for use in older children and once validated will eventually become a complementary monitoring technique for use within the naturalistic environment at the ToddlerLab.
How do I participate?
The name ToddlerLab is actually a bit narrow for what’s going on here. Yes, it’s a center of world-leading pioneers in childhood development research, but the team also facilitates studies from newborns to 18-year-olds. Adolescents were a particular focus during virtual serum studies.
The laboratory 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 in the database, parents will receive email notification of studies relevant to their children’s age group, and it is up to them whether they choose to participate.
Maybe your little Einstein will get his first taste of science at the ToddlerLab?
To register your child as a potential participant at the ToddlerLab, simply fill out their online form, or go to their website for alternative ways to get in touch.
Images by the author, unless specified.