Study Not Just Child's Play

February 11, 2004

Arthur Nead
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Jeffrey Lockman, professor of psychology and Duncan Irschick, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, believe that finding answers to some important questions about human development is at least partly a matter of child's play.

lockmanSo does the National Institutes of Health's Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which awarded the researchers $1.5 million to conduct a five-year study on the development of tool use in infants and young children.

"There's been a debate in the tool-use literature--some people have said tool use is uniquely human and involves higher thinking skills," says Lockman. "We have proposed an alternate view--based on work that has been recently done--that tool use actually begins very early in human life and builds on babies' object-manipulation skills."

This early, rudimentary use of tools speaks to a gradually more complex development over time, says Lockman, and this is one reason simple tool use is seen in non-human species.

"Tool use in humans is certainly much more complicated, but at least in the early ages, there are a lot of similarities between what you see in other species and what you see in human infants and children."
Child's play will indeed be central to the study. Lockman and Irschick plan to carry out detailed motion analyses of as many as 800 babies during the multi-year project. The researchers will place their subjects in a comfortable setting where their activities can be documented on videotape. The tests must be designed carefully, says Lockman.

"You need to come up with procedures so that the babies or toddlers do what you want and at the same time answer the questions that you hopefully generate," says Lockman. "From a scientific standpoint, you have to rule out alternatives, while from the babies' standpoint, it has to be fun. It's one part science, and one part art."

The tests will focus on two types of motions--banging or hammering, and scooting objects back and forth. Most of the subjects will be tested once or just a few times, but approximately 40 of them will be observed over a longer period. The longitudinal studies will follow babies age six to 18 months, says Lockman.

"That's the age span in which they're not really using tools, but they're manipulating objects to the point where they begin to use the objects much more purposefully, in ways that we consider tool-like." The researchers also will chart what effects caregivers have on the development of these behaviors. "We'll be trying to connect the motor aspect, the social aspect and the cognitive aspect, which in the past have been looked at separately. That's one of the things we're excited about in this project," says Lockman.

Lockman has extensive experience working on development of infants and young children, while Irschick is an expert in the use of video imaging techniques to analyze complex limb motions of tree-climbing lizards. The two discussed using Irschick's imaging capabilities for infant-development studies, and the project was born.

"We have to look at very fine motor movements, and the techniques that Duncan has used to study locomotion in lizards are very well-suited for use in studying movements of babies," says Lockman. Irschick was out of town and unavailable for comment. The researchers will employ slow-motion and freeze-frame videography, as well as computer software, to document and reconstruct the fine motor activities of their subjects.

The grant will fund some graduate assistant positions and a postdoctoral researcher, whose efforts will be dedicated to the project. Besides contributing to the debate on the role of tool use in human life, Lockman and Irschick's project could lead to innovations in early childhood education and disability treatment.

"There are a lot of children with motor or coordination problems," says Lockman. "One of the lessons from the intervention literature is that the earlier you intervene, the higher the likelihood of a positive outcome. So understanding these behaviors might help us to figure out a way to design interventions for children with coordination problems."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000