Child Study Lab marks 40 years of research, training in child development

To a casual observer, the children on a playground by the ASU Psychology building look like they are attending a typical well-run preschool, as they pull wagons, dig in the sand and climb on the jungle gym.

The youngsters are actually participating in an ongoing exercise in learning, one that began 40 years ago with the opening of the ASU Child Study Laboratory in the Department of Psychology.

With a reputation for the most up-to-date curriculum available, based on the latest research on child development, the CSL has a waiting list of parents eager for their children to attend. Most are eventually able to get a coveted spot.

The lab, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a sale of children’s art and a gift raffle from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Dec. 6, in the Memorial Union Gold 207 room, has many roles, says Anne Kupfer, director.

It is a training ground for about 60 psychology undergraduates each semester, many of them future teachers and child psychologists who are learning how to use assessment tools and write up case studies. Graduate students conduct work for their master’s theses.

The lab is a valuable resource for faculty in psychology and family studies who can carry out observations that are difficult to do in other preschools, studying how children interact with their peers or different types of play.

Most of all, it’s a place where children get a lot of personal attention and carefully designed learning experiences, and where parents can observe any time they want. Toddlers attend with their parents, and 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled for three to six hours in groups of 15 or so.

“The most important thing we do is to help children be the best they can be, to provide a good foundation so they are the most prepared for kindergarten and first grade,” says Kupfer.

With a philosophy that children’s own natural curiosity will prompt learning, the curriculum is focused on play as the primary medium through which children learn. The emphasis is on exploration and discovery. Fun is rampant.

Children plant vegetables and learn to cook them, throw themselves into hands-on science activities, get messy during sand and water play and take field trips around campus and away from ASU.

Last spring they learned about the Middle Ages, about dragons, princesses and kings. They tried on chain-link armor and saw catapults at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and they built colorful castles in the classroom.

This fall is all about the “sounds of music” as the children learn about musical instruments and how to play them. They’ve been fascinated as ASU student musicians have brought in an accordion, guitar, keyboard, drums, cello and bagpipes. On Dec. 8 they’ll visit the Musical Instrument Museum.

The scholarly role of the lab takes place quietly. Student teaching assistants take notes on each interaction, observing children’s listening and negotiating skills, sometimes having gentle conversations with them to help them learn.

Other research and learning activities are more formal, as children are individually assessed and videotaped in activities while students or faculty members observe.

Psychology professor Arthur Glenberg, who received a grant from the National Science Foundation for his research on embodied cognition, is working with preschoolers in the CSL to expand his research. Earlier, he found that elementary school children who read and then act out the meaning of sentences have better understanding and comprehension. Now he is looking to see if young children who listen and then act out a story develop better listening skills.

“Listening is really important,” says Kupfer. “The ability to listen and recall is at the basis of ADD and many disorders. We’re hoping we can improve a child’s listening skills through embodied cognition.”

She says the work of Regents’ Professor Nancy Eisenberg on teaching children to regulate emotions and behavior and the research of associate professor William Fabricius on 'theory of mind’ also are used in the curriculum. The first involves teaching children to recognize their emotions and then to problem-solve, acting appropriately. The second deals with learning to recognize the desires and beliefs of others.

“The Child Study Lab has been an invaluable resource for me and my students,” says Eisenberg. “We have done many studies on children’s helping and sharing behaviors in the class and how children respond to such behavior, on empathy, on sex-typed play behavior, on self-regulation and its relations to social competence. Some of my students have conducted their MA thesis there, and work in the CSL was the origin of a six-year study I did on children’s regulation, emotion and adjustment.”  

As a model of high-quality education and care for young children, the lab also offers training opportunities and technical assistance for state and local early childhood professionals.

“We’re trying to bring all the many years of research at ASU on child development into our curriculum, so these children are the best prepared to learn,” says Kupfer. “I love watching children learn and grow, to become better listeners and learners, to see their self-esteem grow as they realize they are important and valued.

“These first five years are so important. They lay the foundation of a child’s character and personality.”