Watching babies work it out

By Janice Walls

How do babies find their way in the world? It's a question Mark Schmuckler is trying to answer in his Laboratory for Infant Studies at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.

A professor of developmental psychology, Schmuckler is studying how babies use visual information and a sense of their own movements to orient themselves to objects and events in the world.

In one experiment, a baby between one and two-years old is put behind a barrier, with mom holding a desirable toy on the other side.

"The game is for them to step over the barrier. We're interested in how they do this in relation to different types of barriers. But they do all sorts of things to not have to play our game," says Schmuckler.

"They'll sneak around the barrier or crawl under it. Sometimes, they will use their bodies to stabilize their balance in ways we've never thought of."

In other studies, Schmuckler is examining whether babies can distinguish an approaching object that's going to hit them from an object that will miss them, and how they use awareness of their own movements to recognize a picture of their legs projected onto a screen.

The way a baby coordinates motor movement with visual and other perceptual information has to do with their development as an independent agent, Schmuckler says. Parents are relieved to hear from a paediatrician that their child is on track developmentally - being able to stand at 10 to 12 months of age, for example.

"The type of research I'm doing helps to elucidate the factors that are driving these age norms, so when something is going wrong, it could help us to see where we should start looking for a problem."

Research on how young children use vision to control their balance may help with developmental disabilities that are related to balance, Schmuckler says. In the longer term, he also hopes to investigate growing anecdotal evidence that suggests people with dyslexia actually have challenges with very fine coordination.