15 Sep 2014
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Baby Goes to College

Add scientific research to your list of activities for children in Boston.

Baby Goes to College


Even if you’re buying diapers and wipes instead of No. 2 pencils and notebooks this month, you can still go back to school.

The idea of college – sleeping in until your first class, learning instead of teaching, even institutional food (at least you didn’t have to cook it, and then do the dishes) – might be pretty appealing compared with, well, everything about being a grown-up.

So, since there’s no escaping the grown-up part, here’s a compromise: Go back to school, and take the baby with you.  

In our research-rich city, you can make a little contribution to science by volunteering to participate in child development studies at many of the colleges and universities in Boston. Your child might be asked to perform simple tasks such as playing with a toy, gazing at objects or video displays, or looking at a book.

Granted, this is a short-lived enterprise, because the experiments are typically only minutes in length, and often just one trip to school is required. But only here in Boston can you make your tour of colleges last as long. And the programs are designed to make it easy and enjoyable for parent and child. Free parking? Check. Flexible appointments? Check. Siblings can come along too? Check. Baby gets a little gift? Check.

Plus, the enthusiasm of the people in this field makes them fun to be around. Your pediatrician may love working with kids, but when they’re not running through their list of questions for an annual check-up, their patients are unhappy and not feeling well. Your child’s teacher may love working with kids, but she hangs out with the same bunch every day for hours and months at a time. It has to be challenging to keep the routines fresh.

Child development researchers, on the other hand, continually need new kids to study, and they are just as curious about what’s going on in your baby’s brain as you are. They’ll work to keep a child calm and relaxed, even as he’s providing valuable information during play. And while a researcher can only begin to appreciate an individual child’s personality as you, a teacher, or caregiver may know it, their work aggregates to keep filling in the picture of understanding of all children, and how they learn and reason.

Laura Schulz, who directs the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT, passionately describes her work as “possibly the most exciting frontier,” because in just the past 50 years or so “there’s been a complete revolution in what we know about babies.” Much of her team’s research takes place at the Boston Children’s Museum. Short experiments are run most every day the museum is open (the museum is closed for maintenance until Sept. 25).

Schulz’s lab is part of MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences department. When looking for a program at another school, note that each university is organizationally unique. At BU for example, at least three colleges operate their own labs which study children: the School of Education, Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, and the psychology department in the College of Arts and Sciences.

You won’t get an individualized assessment of your own child from any study, but often the lab can provide a summary of results to participants when the research is completed. Check out the websites of individual labs for FAQs and contact information.

Here’s a beginner’s list of programs that are currently recruiting participants of varying ages. There are other large universities (Harvard, Northeastern, and Suffolk, for example) that have child development labs, but these are the ones that I’ve verified:

Boston College


Boston University

– Child Cognition Lab (College of Arts and Sciences)




– Child Language Lab (Sargent College)






Lab Coordinator: Rachel Magid


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