“Do I know you?” When do babies begin tracking faces?

A clip from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” was shown to infants of different ages so researchers could measure "eye-tracking"

A clip from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” was shown to infants so researchers could measure eye-tracking.

One of the most important questions involved in studying the mental life of infants involves a very simple matter: can babies actually track the faces they see? In recent years, developmental psychologists have been making heavy use of the technology known as eye-tracking to examine this possibility.

In a study led by Dr. Michael Frank in the Psychology department at Stanford University, researchers showed a clip from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” to infants of different ages. They found that older infants focused more strongly on the faces (indicated by the color red) than the younger infants. It is known from other studies that babies are quite skilled at being social but these findings are important because they suggest the pace at which infants become skilled at being social.

The color red indicates the amount of time infants focused on faces from the clip, indicating the age at which facial recognition begins.

The color red indicates the amount of time infants focused on faces from the clip, indicating the age at which facial recognition begins.

It would be fascinating to know if some kind of training could help infants track faces easier than they otherwise would. For now, as the researchers note, this research is among the first of its kind and is an important “first step in measuring the looking behavior of infants in noisy, cluttered environments.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

New Book Investigates How Imaginary Play in Childhood Links to Adult Creativity

Book Review by Helen Hadani, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research at the Center for Childhood Discovery.

Did you create an imaginary world when you were a child or does your child have a secret parallel world with strange and wonderful creatures that speak a made-up language?

"Inventing Imaginary Worlds"This is the fascinating topic of Michelle Root-Bernstein’s new book, “Inventing Imaginary Worlds.” Michele and her husband Robert—both leading creativity scholars—are co-authors of the book “Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People.” The topic of imaginary worlds has not been well researched or documented, and Michele presents a very comprehensive, engaging and authentic account of one of the most impressive, yet elusive, aspects of childhood imagination—the spontaneous creation of make-believe worlds.

“Inventing Imaginary Worlds” is a fun read and is both scholarly and accessible. Root-Bernstein does a wonderful job of bringing you into the imaginary play spaces of famous writers, poets and scholars including Emily Brontë (and her sisters), C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. From a personal perspective, Root-Bernstein describes how she discovered imaginary worlds through her daughter Meredith’s worldplay in “The Land of Kar,” which Meredith created starting around age nine:

Playing makebelieve

These young boys engage in worldplay at the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s Lookout Cove.

Several outings to the library later, I was on my way to acquiring a growing collection of imagery worlds, marvelous and diverse, and a growing list of reasons of why worldplay, as I was soon to call it, might just be the most important neglected phenomenon of childhood (pg. 4).

In chapter three, Root-Bernstein relates playful childhood invention to adult creativity by describing the Worldplay Project, a study she conducted with MacArthur Fellows. Root-Bernstein found that worldplay is much more common than previously realized (about one-quarter of the MacArthur Fellows reported creating imaginary worlds as children) and there seems to be strong link between childhood worldplay and mature creativity in a wide range of disciplines (e.g. arts, social sciences and sciences). Interestingly, many of the study participants recognized elements of worldplay in their adult vocations: “Creative imagination in maturity, it turned out, can look remarkably like child’s play” (p. 51).

Children at the Bay Area Discovery Museum's Imaginary Worlds Summer Camp engage creatively in story telling, acting, costume creation and set design.

Children at the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s Imaginary Worlds Summer Camp engage creatively in story telling, acting, costume creation and set design.

The book is divided into four sections, and my favorite section is the third — in which Root-Bernstein devotes several chapters to telling the stories of gifted educators that introduced in schools curriculum based on worldplay. For example, Deborah Meier, an author, teacher, principal and learning theorist, successfully implemented innovative ideas in several elementary schools that she founded in Harlem, New York based on her experience with worldplay (she was a MacArthur Fellow participant in the WorldPlay Project). Root-Bernstein makes the convincing argument in this chapter that educators and policy makers need to protect recess and time for free play so that teachers can weave “imaginative pretense into the fabric of classroom work, as teachers set the stage for guided play with curricular topics” (p. 159).

I think this book has something for almost everyone—teachers, parents, researchers and anyone interested in creative thinking, playful learning and imagination. At times you will feel like you are reading fiction because the detailed descriptions of make-believe worlds is captivating, but always grounded in research and a thorough examination of this fascinating element of children’s creative capacity.


Helen Hadani, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of Research at the Center for Childhood Discovery. She has worked with children, parents and teachers in various research and educational settings for over fifteen years. She received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Stanford University and has taught classes on early childhood development at UC Davis and San Francisco State University. Helen spent the early part of her career in the technology and toy industries and conducted research with parents and children to help develop new products at Hasbro, Apple, Leapfrog, and Lego. Most recently, she managed all operations for Lango Davis, a foreign language program that offered Spanish and Mandarin classes to young children in the Davis and Sacramento areas and created curriculum for Lango that was implemented in programs across the U.S. Helen has a passion for creating innovative learning environments that foster children’s intellectual, social and physical growth with an emphasis on play-based learning and discovery.

At what age do children see race?

Are children aware of race? If so, do they treat people of their own and other races differently?

These are questions that have come to the forefront of the national media in recent times, as when CNN’s Anderson Cooper commissioned a special study for his show. To begin to assess whether young children in modern America show a basic preference toward people depending on race, Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University carried out a series of studies with European-American children.

At what age do children see race2In a study with infants, babies encountered both a European-American female and an African-American female who offered a toy. The researchers were interested in whether babies would be more likely to accept the toy from the European-American female. If so, the study could be taken as evidence that, by the time they are 10 months of age, infants have come to prefer their own racial group. However, this was not the case; the infants were equally likely to choose from the European-American female as they were from the African-American female.

In their next study, the researchers asked 2-and-a-half-year-olds to give a present to either of the same two individuals as in the study with 10-month-olds. The results showed that, yet again, children’s preferences did not depend on the race of the individual. However, the story with the 5-year-olds was very different: More than 90% of the children tested reported that they would prefer to be friends with the European-American individual.

While more research is needed with different groups of children, Kinzler and Spelke write that these findings “provide a note of optimism that later race-based social preferences may not be a predetermined outcome.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Who teaches vocabulary to babies better, parents or DVDs?

Many parents want their babies to learn language as early as possible, and a whole industry has emerged with the intention of using videos to accelerate vocabulary growth. Do these videos actually deliver on their promise?

To examine this important question, developmental psychologist Judy DeLoache at the University of Virginia led a recent study published in Psychological Science. In the study, DeLoache and her colleagues had infants ranging in age from 12 to 18 months undergo one of three experiences during a month-long period.

baby watching tvA third of the babies’ parents were told to have their baby watch a popular 40-minute long DVD aimed at boosting vocabulary. Although the authors do not disclose the title of this DVD, they noted that it featured a voice labeling common household objects. Thus, a second third of the babies’ parents were told to watch the DVD with their infant. A final third were not given the DVD, but instead were given the list of words that the DVD aimed to teach, and instructed to attempt to teach these words to their babies.

After the month-long period of watching the DVD, the researchers tested the infants and found that the DVD had no effect on vocabulary learning, either when the baby watched the DVD by herself or when she watched the DVD with the parent. By contrast, the infants whose parents had tried to teach the words actually learned the words to a greater extent.

The conclusion is clear: no matter how visually interesting, baby media does not replace parents’ ability to help babies learn.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Cat in the Hat or Goodnight Moon? How Culture Teaches Kids ‘The Right Way to Be’ Emotionally

Do children throughout the world value feeling happy and excited? Or are these emotions susceptible to large cultural influences that dictate how children should want to feel?

In a groundbreaking series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai examined how children’s cultural background could impact their preferences for different emotions. Prior research with adults has shown that European-Americans value positive emotions to a considerable extent. By contrast, Taiwanese adults place a greater importance on calmness. Would these same patterns be observed in young children?

girl swimming in poolTsai and her colleagues asked preschoolers to look at two faces. One face had a big, wide smile while the other had a smaller smile. Children were asked, “Which smile would you rather be?” Next, the children were read a short story about characters that either liked to do such things as “jumping and splashing in the pool” or “sitting and floating on an inner tube in the pool.”

The results showed that children from European-American cultural backgrounds valued the big smile more than the Taiwanese children did. They also preferred the characters that were more “excited” in the pool, while the Taiwanese children showed exactly the opposite pattern.

Since the research showed that children from these cultural contexts do in fact show distinct preferences for different emotions, the researchers then looked at many of the most popular storybooks from these two cultural contexts. The results showed that Taiwanese storybooks had significantly more “calm” faces than American storybooks, which tended to have more “excited” faces among the characters.

Taiwanese girlCould it be possible that these storybooks are one of the reasons for children’s own preferences? In the last part of the study, Tsai’s research team read storybooks about either an “excited” character or “calm” character. Afterwards, Tsai had children state their preferences for excitement or calmness. The results showed when children are exposed to this kind of cultural material, they start inferring that what happened in the story is the “right way to be.”

Overall, Tsai and her colleagues note that “these findings not only demonstrate that cultural differences in ideal emotion emerge early in life, but also identify a specific pathway through which emotional values are culturally transmitted and learned.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Does Trust Depend on your Closeness with your Mother?

Children often learn the labels for objects by trusting in their parents’ explicit statements, such as “this is a cup.” However, what would happen if a stranger gave conflicting information? What if a stranger told the child that a cup was called a pen? Would children trust the information provided by their parent or by the stranger?

Does a a positive and responsive emotional experience during infancy have an impact on whether a toddler will trust a mother more than a stranger?

Does a positive and responsive emotional experience during infancy have an impact on whether a toddler will trust a mother more than a stranger?

Published in the journal Child Development, a study led by Kathleen Corriveau and Paul Harris at Harvard University revealed some surprising and important information about children’s tendencies to trust. Corriveau and her colleagues hypothesized that preschoolers who had a more positive and responsive emotional experience with their mother during the infant period would be more likely to trust information coming from her, while children who had a less positive experience would be more likely to trust the stranger.

The researchers measured the quality of the infant-mother bond when the children were around 15 months of age. This was done through a procedure called the “Strange Situation” in which a mother leaves her infant for a short time and researchers observe how the infant reacts. Infants who become distressed and are then able to be soothed are categorized as “securely attached” while infants who barely cry and hence don’t need soothing are categorized as “avoidantly attached.”

These categories are important and are thought to reflect the quality of caregiving, especially during the first year of life. Infants who are labeled as “securely attached” trust that their primary caregivers will return to them. They have had a history of trusting that their primary caregiver — often a mother — will meet their needs responsively, with affection and consistency. Secure attachment has been demonstrated to predict greater success in school, positive connections with teachers, and more positive interpersonal relationships.

When the infants in Corriveau’s study reached their fourth birthday, they were asked to come back for a second session. In this session, unknown objects were given certain labels by the mother, while a stranger gave the same object different labels. Would the children trust the information from their mothers or the stranger?

As children strive to learn, they are more likely to learn from people with whom they have had a positive emotional relationship.

As children strive to learn, they are more likely to learn from people with whom they have had a positive emotional relationship.

The results were striking. Children who had been classified as “avoidant” in infancy tended to trust their mothers much less than children who had been classified as “secure.”

This is a very important finding, for it suggests that as children strive to learn, they are more likely to learn from people with whom they have had a positive emotional relationship. This study has implications not only for parents and caregivers, but also for teachers.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Study Suggests Way to Reduce Classroom Aggression

In modern America, we often hear of children harming other children in school settings. Can anything be done to improve this situation?

In a recent study, David Yeager, Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck of Stanford University sought to examine whether the belief that people can change may impact aggression in the school context. The researchers were inspired by a body of work suggesting that believing people can change is associated with a host of positive outcomes, such as greater persistence on difficult tasks.

girls playing on playground

The study features three groups of 9th and 10th graders. A third of the teens participated in a six-session workshop where they learned that people’s personalities could change. A second third of the children participated in a workshop that focused on coping skills. The last third of the children did not participate in a workshop.

Four weeks later, the researchers carried out a procedure in which the teens thought they were playing a computer-based ball-tossing game with two other peers. In reality, the researchers controlled the other two “players” in the game, and these two “players” interacted with the teen by excluding him from the game.

The researchers were interested in whether the teens that learned that people could change would react less aggressively to this social exclusion. Aggression was measured by the amount of hot sauce that teens sent their “partner” to “try.” The results showed that the teens that had been in the coping skills workshop gave an average of 43 grams of hot sauce and the teens that hadn’t been through any workshop gave around 38 grams. By contrast, the teens in the “people can change” workshop gave about 25 grams, a quite significant difference.

Similarly, 50% of the children in this group gave more nice notes to the person who had excluded them, while only about 10% of the other groups gave nice notes. In fact, the children in these other groups actively described their intention to harm the “bully.”

Simply put, teaching children that people can change may trigger a systemic decrease in aggression, which may in turn reduce violence in America’s schools.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Pre-Natal Learning: Developing Food Preferences in the Womb

baby eatingExpecting mothers often worry that the food they eat may somehow affect their baby. Is this true?

If a mother consumes large quantities of carrot juice, will the baby like the taste of carrot? This is not a silly question. If food preferences can be shaped while still in the womb, it is possible that interventions may be successful at changing food preferences (as has been shown in previous research).

To seek answers to this question, Julia Manella and her colleagues at the Monell Chemical Senses Center asked expecting mothers to drink approximately one and a quarter cups of either water or carrot juice a total of four times a week for three consecutive weeks during the last trimester of their pregnancy.

Six months after the babies were born, and during the time in which the mothers had started giving the infants cereal, Manella brought the babies into the lab to observe their eating behaviors. The results showed that the infants whose mothers had consumed carrot juice during their pregnancy tended to look happier while eating a carrot-flavored cereal and actually consumed more of the cereal than the infants whose mothers had only consumed water.

Learning begins in the wombHow exactly did this happen? The researchers say the findings might be “attributable to the experimental effect of carrot juice in amniotic fluid or mothers’ milk.” They also say “very early flavor experiences provide the foundation for cultural and ethnic differences in cuisine.” For example, by exposing her fetus to a vegetable-rich diet, a mother may actually be introducing her fetus to a culture of vegetable consumption.

While more research is needed to better understand how this process unfolds, clearly this is an important study that highlights the fact that learning does not begin at birth. Learning begins in the womb.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

How to Get Your Child to Eat Their Veggies

VeggiesParents often wonder about how they can make their children eat healthy foods. Approaches can range from being a bossy “veggies are good for you!” to “if you eat your veggies, you’ll get a new toy!” to even hiding veggies in brownies! While these kind of appeals perhaps work for some children at least some of the time, new research suggests that teaching children about the nature of food may improve their vegetable intake.

In the study, Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman of Stanford University hypothesized that, because children are avid learners who are eager to learn about how the world operates, that children may benefit from knowing why eating a variety of good foods, such as vegetables, is a good thing to do.

In the first part of the study, half of the children were in classrooms where teachers read multiple books about food that had been specifically designed to teach concepts about nutrition. For example, one book described nutrients as “tiny things we can’t see, but which are important for our bodies.” Another book emphasized the importance of dietary variety (“Just one kind of food is not enough. People need to get nutrients from all types of foods.”) The other half of the children heard storybooks based on the USDA’s Team Nutrition guidelines.

After children had been exposed to the storybooks for a few weeks, Gripshover took them aside and asked them a variety of comprehension questions:

  • The children who had been exposed to the storybooks were more likely to report that it was important to eat more than just one kind of healthy food,
  • 47% of the children who had been exposed to the storybooks drew on the idea of nutrients to explain their answer,
  • Children gave a puppet a different food rather the same food, suggesting that they had learned that individuals really do need to consume all types of food in order to be healthy.

Result: 2x the veggiesAfter children’s compression was tested, Gripshover went into the actual classroom and observed children’s food intake during snack time. It was found that the children who had been exposed to the storybooks ate more vegetables than the children who just heard about the USDA nutrition guidelines. Specifically, children who heard the storybooks increased their vegetable intake from around five pieces, to eleven.

The researchers see considerable promise in this procedure, and note that they showed a “transformation from a view of food that includes little beyond eating, swallowing, and excreting to a view that food contains diverse, invisible nutrients that are excreted during digestion and carried around in the blood.”

By capitalizing on children’s eagerness to understand how things work, parents and teachers may be able to increase vegetable intake.

Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Bilingual Babies Might Be Smarter

Baby & Golden Gate BridgeWell, maybe not smarter, but new research suggests bilingual infants have more flexible cognitive functions.

Parents often assume that exposing their children to a different language will boost children’s academic potential in school. However, is it possible that even infants may benefit at the cognitive level from being exposed to more than one language?

This is precisely the question that Agnes Kovacs set out to test. In her study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, she compared the performance of 7-month old bilingual and monolingual infants on a novel task.

During the first part of the task, infants heard a fun, made-up sound just prior to an image, such as a puppet, showing up on one side of screen. Infants were exposed to these kinds of stimuli various times, so that they could learn that one particular sound was associated with one particular object that would show up on one side of a screen.

Once the infants had been exposed to these pairings for a long time, the task changed. Now, instead of the image on the screen showing up on one side of the screen, it showed up on the other, and kept showing up in this new location.

The crucial question was – would infants learn to look toward the other side of the screen, or would they all keep looking toward the side where they had been extensively trained to attend to during the familiarization phase?

The answer turned out to be that only the infants growing up in a bilingual environment seemed to update their strategy. These infants were faster to begin to look toward the other side of the screen once the new “rule” had been established. In other words, they were more flexible in their thinking.

This study is very important – it suggests that, even before infants start speaking, their exposure to different languages augments their mental capacities. Importantly, the effects weren’t simply due to bilingual infants coming from more educated or wealthier families. Thus, there is something about being exposed to different languages that seems to drive the ability to engage creatively with new stimuli in the world.

The study could have clear educational or policy implications. It is possible that even monolingual parents may be given materials in other languages, such as recordings that they could play to their infants. If so, this could be of massive help to children’s creative development. As the researchers note:

“crib bilingualism promotes the development of important cognitive control functions already at a preverbal age.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.