Child’s play: UW-Green Bay seeks families for toddler-development study

GREEN BAY — “Child Scientists Wanted.”

The sign is up, again, at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The school’s Language Learning Lab is looking for local parents interested in having their children ages 18 months through 3 years participate in a major study of toddlers’ skill and language development.

Language Learning Lab

Volunteers will be asked to make a single trip to the University for a 30- to 45-minute session in which the parent will gently guide his or her child through a few simple play exercises. The session will be observed and documented by a University researcher. Each child will receive a toy or book as a small gift.

Assistant Prof. Jennifer Zapf directs the Language Learning Lab, now in its second full year of operation. Zapf says she and her student assistants already have made significant observations about toddlers’ abilities to learn words and grammar.

“Our understanding of early language development continues to grow,” she says. The call for additional volunteers reflects that success. “We really do need large numbers — at least several hundred children — to make our studies as representative as possible.”

One key milestone in language development is the use of plurals. Beginning with specific instances they likely memorize — “dog” vs. “dogs,” for example — children develop rule-like knowledge that can be extended to any noun. Language Lab researchers have confirmed that young children appear more likely to use the plural form when there are more objects (four toy dogs) than a lesser number (two toy dogs).

Other study topics include how language, numbers and problem-solving intersect when children play with puzzle pieces; how English-speaking toddlers might learn plurals and numbers differently than do toddlers in other languages; and the extent to which children at play might or might not mimic their parents’ language.

Parents won’t receive any sort of individual analysis of their children’s session — “This isn’t about comparing, or assessing where any one child is with regard to development,” Zapf says — but a parents’ newsletter does summarize cumulative findings.

Human Development and Psychology are among the University’s most heavily enrolled majors, and Zapf draws from among these and others in recruiting research assistants. “Our students are so excited,” Zapf says. “They’re seeing the same things in these 2-year-olds — that children understand way more than they can say — that they’ve been reading about in their courses.”

Zapf joined the UW-Green Bay Human Development faculty in 2007 from Indiana University, where she assisted with IU’s nationally renowned cognitive development laboratory.

To participate in the project, contact Jennifer A. Zapf, Assistant Professor, Human Development and Psychology; University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Drive, MAC Hall C310; e-mail, phone 920-465-2490. Parents can sign up online at the project website,

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