If you’ve ever had the chance to observe a baby in their daily routine, you’d know that it’s not exactly all sunshine and rainbows. Young babies can be very messy, they make a lot of noise and, given that they cannot talk, it’s often hard to guess what they need. So why would some scientists be interested in studying them? Researchers at the Essex Babylab are particularly interested in studying how infants learn and develop for several reasons. First, to have a better understanding of how something works, it is very helpful to learn where it originates. For example, you are more likely to understand a friend’s behaviour if you’ve known them since they were little. Understanding how behaviours and cognitive processes such as language first emerge and develop allow us to learn better the importance and purpose of these abilities. Another reason why studying infants and young children is interesting is because in those early years more growth takes place than at any other age. Studying how babies go from being rather helpless creatures to walking and babbling little persons allow us to also promote optimum health, growth and neurodevelopment.

Researchers at the Essex Babylab aim to answer questions like ‘How do infants develop language and an understanding of the world?’, ‘How do infants learn about their own body?’, ‘How can we promote a healthy start in life?’. The first years in a child’s life are critical for their development and wellbeing, so answering such key questions ultimately helps researchers to support children in their early years. For example, they have found that to learn about their bodies, babies make associations between different senses. These results suggest that sensory experience, such as sensory play, may help babies understand what their bodies are capable of, thus supporting their interactions with the world. To find out what is going on inside babies’ heads, the researchers use methods that can safely measure brain activity while babies watch videos, play with toys or listen to sounds. These methods are particularly helpful because they help us to understand what causes things to change during development.

Researching baby’s development is at the heart of the Essex Babylab’s work, but ultimately the researchers want to make a positive social impact. And the Essex Babylab values public engagement. The researchers started the multidisciplinary group ‘From the Womb to the World’ (WoW) to make baby science more accessible to parents. They work closely with health and child care professionals to provide support and advice to parents through online platforms and events. New parents receive a variety of advice and information from different sources, with very little continuity as they move from one stage of parenthood to the next. The aim of WoW is to help parents on their journey from pregnancy through the first few years of their baby’s life. People feel they need to follow textbooks and specific rules to be good parents. By sharing science-based information about babies’ development, the researchers aim to empower parents to recognise that they have all it takes to be the real experts of their babies,

Childhood experiences and behaviours often track into adulthood and predict adult behavioural choices. A good example of this is nature connection. Providing children with opportunities for unstructured active play outdoors in nature promotes creativity and imagination, improves resilience, cognition and mental wellbeing and reduces stress. Despite a dip in nature connection during teenage years, if a connection is established as a child, evidence suggests you will reconnect in adulthood and are more likely to adopt a pro-environmental attitude. Researchers from the Green Exercise Team have collaborated with the Wilderness Foundation to evidence how nature can be used as a catalyst for behavioural change for youth at risk. Engaging in wilderness therapy programmes has transformed the lives of these vulnerable young people and enabled them to interact more meaningfully with their surroundings. We have tracked mental health outcomes, such as self-esteem, mood, hopefulness and mindfulness over the course of the nine-month programmes and seen important meaningful changes. These young people improve their sense of self-worth, confidence and decision making and reengage with education or employment. The experience is very empowering and really does act as a vehicle to promote positive change for a brighter future.

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