Courtesy of Pexels

Like all University of California (UC) schools, the University of California Riverside (UCR) is on the cutting edge of discovery and innovation, which comes with its status as a major research institution. Recently, professors like Rebekah Richert at the Childhood Cognition Lab at UCR’s psychology department are continuing to innovate by not only asking the challenging questions that drive the field of developmental psychology, but also taking a more global approach to answering them, providing an understanding of how children take in the world around them.

The Childhood Cognition Lab here at UCR seeks to understand how children, particularly when they are very young, understand and internalize their place in the more abstract parts of human society and make sense, as Professor Richert puts it, “of the different worlds we show them.”

This encompasses everything from learning about religious rituals to young children’s first understandings of science from cartoons and fantasy. Professor Richert explains her motivations, stating, “What I’m interested in is how learning about that, or even just being exposed to that kind of media influences how children think about early science stuff that they’re learning about.” These difficult-to-characterized concepts help make up almost every culture across the globe and often become an unconscious part of our society. Yet how we take in and understand such ideas as children is still being explored today. As Professor Richert explains, developing a greater understanding of how children learn such concepts can help us better communicate important life lessons to them and allow them to become fulfilled and engaged members of society. 

Professor Richert’s more recent projects seek to do that by moving to a global stage with the Developing Belief Network, an international research organization that seeks to better understand cognition. Their current project is about to finish data collection after two and a half years of planning and implementing research that seeks to better understand how children from the ages of four to ten understand religion in regards to beliefs, actions, communities and more. For this study, there is a particular interest in seeing how children from different backgrounds may think about and understand the idea of God, and how that relates to the types of moral and social rules that are associated with deities. These rules are often encoded in our lives by the time we become teenagers, solidifying as we move to the adult world. 

This research will also be important to see if developing an understanding of these beliefs and structures, helps to create a sense of belonging and connection in children’s lives as they grow up. Professor Richert described how she believed that there would be much to lose by not taking the sample from a more global perspective as well. “[A] couple reasons we take a global approach, one is that, up till now, the majority of research that has been done on how young children’s … thinking about religion develops has been based primarily … in westernized countries with children from Christian backgrounds … those studies are valuable on their own, we learned something from that but those studies don’t have the the diversity of representation.”

The study is striving to be as inclusive as it can be of cultures of all religious backgrounds, including everyone from indigenous communities and those who identify as atheists so that conclusions are not drawn based on a very narrow subset of human experiences. 

Still, the research performed in this lab is not just limited to the social aspects of developmental psychology. In years past, Professor Richert’s lab has tested video games like Dance Dance Revolution and Wii consoles when they first came out, as a way to try to examine the potential benefits towards the physical fitness of children as they played. Professor Richert was quick to provide a small disclaimer, however, stating that some of these games are meant to be just that. Games, for children to enjoy and have fun. The research that is conducted into games such as these is simply to see if there are any added benefits to activities that kids incorporate into their everyday lives.

Much of the research at the Childhood Cognition Lab is led by graduate students who work under the mentorship of Professor Richert. She describes the relationship and journey of being a graduate student under a given professor as being one of apprenticeship rather than studenthood. “When graduate students start they’ll typically start by being in a project that is already going on … but then every graduate student has their own goals, their own interests and ideas, and not only are they different from mine … they should be ideas that they want to take and develop their own career to study.” 

The relationship is one of collaboration rather than that of the top-down hierarchy associated with school. This allows graduate students to develop the skills needed for when they enter the workforce formally by essentially doing a trial run of being a professor themselves. This is the same for many of the research assistants (R.As) who work under Professor Richert and her lab. Though much of the experience is related to learning and getting a better understanding of their field of study, many of their duties are directly involved in the research that is being performed, such as transcribing or even being trained to conduct interviews within the study. Professor Richert and the Childhood Cognition Lab seek to broaden the horizons of developmental psychology by asking questions and looking for answers in the diverse and multicultural world we live in.

If you are interested in this research, Professor Richert encourages students to look over the lab’s R.A. application that is currently open.