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What to expect … when you’re a baby

What to expect … when you’re a baby
Behind a puppet stage, Aimee Stahl and her student researchers set up a simple performance that will help them explore how infants learn.

TCNJ’s Cognitive Development Lab opened its doors in spring 2017 and welcomed the campus’ newest arrivals: babies, as young as 10 months.

Located in the Social Sciences Building, the new lab is run by Aimee E. Stahl, assistant professor of psychology, whose research focuses on the learning and memory of infants and children. The facility—which looks more like a playroom than the high-tech lab it is—is equipped with toys, games, and a puppet stage for shows. But the “shows” aren’t just for fun. Behind the scenes, video cameras installed throughout the lab help Stahl and her team keep a close eye on the infant audience and its reactions. The result? Insights on what babies learn, and how they learn it.

On the stage, babies see “expected” events: a ball dropping or rolling into a wall, for example. But they also see unexpected events, like that same ball hovering in the air when dropped, or passing through the wall rather than stopping at it.

“What we’ve found is that babies watch unexpected events for a longer period of time than expected events,” Stahl explains, “which indicates they’re spending more time learning about them.”

Babies who see unexpected events happen to a certain toy (like a ball) also choose to play with that toy rather than an entirely new toy, and to test its limits based on what they just witnessed. For example, babies who see a ball hover in mid-air are likely to drop it over and over again; those who have seen it pass through a wall are likely to bang it against a table. Essentially, as Stahl explains, “babies learn better about something that violates their expectations than something that is in accordance with their expectations.”

So far, Stahl and her student researchers have tested more than 30 babies ages 10–26 months. In the fall, they’ll expand their research with studies for older children, between 2–4 years.

Want to get involved? TCNJ’s Cognitive Development Lab is always looking for volunteer participants. Parents can learn more and sign up online at

—Melissa Kvidahl