Stanford Developmental Labs
at the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo

The JMZ is not just a place to learn about science – it is also a place to contribute to science! In 2014, the JMZ and Stanford’s Social Learning Lab (Dept. of Psychology) launched a partnership to support research into how children think, learn, and interact with others. Now, researchers in the Social Learning Lab and other groups in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University (Stanford Developmental Labs) are excited to be back at the JMZ following its reopening in November. 

Scientists cannot study how the human mind develops without the help of families like you. Instead of running studies in a closed lab space, Stanford’s partnership with the JMZ allows researchers to bring their studies to the public. You may see Stanford Researchers with nametags walking around the museum, and they may ask whether you and your child are interested in participating. 

We hope that these will be fun, informative activities for everyone. You can see how scientific studies on child development are conducted while your child participates in research activities that are designed to be fun and engaging!  

Teresa Garcia, lab manager, Social Learning Lab at Stanford, shares more about the scientists and research activities, as well as how you can participate, below. This is the latest installment in our newsletter series with news about the new Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo!
Stanford Social Learning researchers visiting the JMZ!
What are we studying?

We are interested in how children learn about the world and communicate what they know. Young children are amazing learners - they face the difficult task of figuring out “how the world works” and they do this in just the first few years of life! We study how young children achieve this remarkable feat in order to better understand how the human mind works. 

Here is an example of a study at the JMZ: 

Costs and Rewards in Teaching - published thanks to families at the JMZ!
Even if we wanted to, we can’t always teach others everything. Sometimes we have to make decisions about what to teach. How do we decide what to teach and what to leave for learners to discover? In this study, completed with the help of families at the JMZ, we had 5-7-year-old children make decisions about what to teach someone else and found that children consider the utility of the information when choosing. They chose to teach the information that would be the most exciting or interesting to the learner as well as the most difficult for them to learn on their own. This work was published in Nature Human Behaviour in 2021 and also featured in this Stanford News article

Here are some questions that we are asking in ongoing studies: 

Can children understand the benefits of one-to-one (individual tutoring) vs. one-to-many teaching (like in a classroom) and choose different strategies for teaching depending on the context? 
Can children use information about another person’s physical constraints when solving problems together?
At what age do children reason about what others think of them, and how does this capacity affect free play and exploration?
How do children consider the past helpfulness of other people around them when making decisions as they learn?

Come check out our research room! 

Our research happens in a quiet room called the Stanford Studio next to the Building Blocks exhibit, so that children and families feel comfortable in a private setting. If both you and your child are interested in trying out our study that day, we can all head over to the room together. Our research activities are designed for one child to participate at a time, but your family is welcome to come in and watch!
Come visit our special gameroom!
Your whole family is welcome to come and watch the study!
How do I participate?

Once in the room, the researcher will ask you to sign a consent form so that we have your permission for your child to participate. Here are the most important things to know about the form: 

Our activities are designed to be fun and engaging for children, but you or your child are free to stop at any time. We ask for your child’s date of birth and record the session, but we keep all of our data confidential and securely stored in our lab.
We conduct studies on how children think and learn. This means that we will not be analyzing or drawing conclusions about any specific child. There is no right or wrong answer to our tasks – any answer your child gives during the session is valuable data for us! 
Here’s Kat, our post-doctoral researcher, going over our consent form
for their child to participate in the study. Feel free to ask any questions!
After the consent form has been signed and if your child is interested in trying the research activity, we will get started! Studies often involve watching simple video clips or playing with toys and are designed to be fun and engaging. The researcher might ask your child what they think or prefer. Remember, there’s no right or wrong answers - we are just interested in what children say or do in response to these questions. Thus, it is important that parents do not give hints or suggestions during the session! :-) 
Each research project is designed for specific age groups. We have studies for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and older children (up to 7 or 8). Here’s one of our 8-year-old participants helping us out with our study!
Our studies take the form of different activities and games. Here is Teresa,
our lab manager, and one of our 4-year-old participants
learning about some special boxes and rolling toys through a tube!
Our studies are designed to be fun and engaging for your child!
We hope that you all have as much fun as we do!
We love answering questions and giving out thank you stickers
at the end of our study!
During this time we are also making sure to abide by the safest practices possible, such as sanitizing our study materials, to ensure that families feel comfortable participating.

What happens after a research project is complete?

Our researchers will try the research activity with many children at the JMZ. Once we have a big enough group of children (varies by study but more than 50 - 80 children in most cases), we can look at what the data tells us about children’s learning and decision making. We don’t look at children’s individual responses, but we do see what children do as a group, depending on their age. For example we might see what percentage of children chose one option over another or how long children played with a certain object on average. The research process can sometimes take years, but in the end, we hope to present the results at conferences and publish in a scientific journal! Our findings are also featured in popular media so that even more people can learn about our research. Through this process we hope to share with others what we have learned so that together we can improve our knowledge of how children learn and think! 

Do you have any questions?

If you are interested in learning more you can email the Social Learning Lab at [email protected], or visit our website:

In addition to Social Learning Lab, our JMZ space features researchers from these labs in the Department of Psychology at Stanford: 

Language and Cognition Lab -
Markman Lab -
Social Concepts Lab -
Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo