Internship report: Investigating the link between infant vocabulary development and symbolic play

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Over the summer, I worked as a research intern for Amy Bidgood at the University of Liverpool, gaining valuable experience in the process. My internship focused on an ongoing project investigating the association between infant vocabulary development and symbolic (pretend) play. Based on previous research, we were interested in exploring whether infants with more advanced vocabularies, at 18, 24 and 30 months, also engaged in more advanced and frequent symbolic play.

In order to test this hypothesis, I coded videos from the Language 0-5 project of infants engaging in symbolic play. In these play sessions, infants received a set of toys to interact with for 10 minutes, such as a saucepan and lid, a complete tea set and a toy phone to name just a few. Data was coded using the Pretend Play Scale- a hierarchical structure depicting 11 stages of symbolic play. This scale begins with less advanced stages such as the Autosymbolic stage. Here, the child will use a toy to perform an action on themselves, such as pretending to drink from an empty cup. More advanced stages are reached at the top of the scale, such as Imaginary Transformations. This stage represents the child’s interaction with imaginary objects and/or people, such as placing imaginary food into the saucepan. Although initially inconsistent, I soon became more confident and experienced with the coding scheme, which has produced preliminary results suggesting that at 18 and 24 months, infants with more advanced vocabularies at these age groups do indeed engage in more advanced symbolic play. 

Not only did I gain experience in analysing data, but also in how data is collected and how to conduct experiments. Working with the Language 0-5 project, I was given the opportunity to oversee eye-tracking studies examining infant sentence processing. My work here included positioning the eye-tracker at an appropriate angle to locate the infant’s eye, as well as measuring the quality of the audio during the experiment. I was also trained on, and conducted experimental tests aimed at measuring infant language and vocabulary, namely the BPVS, CELF and DEAP. With no prior knowledge of the necessary procedures and techniques used during experiments, this part of my internship has given me priceless understanding of how to conduct studies involving infant participants, which I can carry with me throughout my future career. 

My time however was not just restricted to researching in the lab. I was also given the opportunity to attend LuCiD conferences where new research is presented. Firstly in Manchester was a presentation given by Nicola Botting discussing her work on communication disorders. Then in July I went to the LuCiD mini-conference held over 2 days in Lancaster. Here, PhD and post-doc students came together to present their research which were followed by a group discussion. Of particular interest to me was the realisation that although they may work in the same field, researchers will very often have conflicting views to their colleagues, making for lively discussions!

Overall, I consider the opportunity given to me this summer to be invaluable, and I would not hesitate to complete it again. Not only have I had an enjoyable experience, but I have had an educative experience of what goes on when conducting researching- something I can carry with me during my career. This has also enabled me to create a far clearer understanding of the path I want to take following my degree.  


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