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More Than Child's Play: Center For Child And Family Studies Researches Building Blocks Of Human Relationships

By Susanne Rockwell on October 22, 1999 in University

Toward late morning at the Center for Child and Family Studies, toddlers sit on the floor eating frozen pops. To the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round," the children sing about a dog on a firetruck.

Parent Brian Walsh has arrived early to pick up his daughter, Ji-Ren, who sits next to her best friend. Ji-Ren offers her dad an icy treat, sits with him for a few minutes, then runs back over to join the group.

The relaxing song-and-snack time closes what's been a lively morning in the toddler room. The children have shared-and squabbled. A child has bitten a classmate.

Situated in a park-like setting of 1930s yellow-frame bungalows at the edge of the campus, the UC Davis center is the only place on campus to observe early childhood development and inquiry up close on a daily basis.

Each academic year, approximately 80 children enroll in the center's infant, toddler and early preschool programs, which are scheduled primarily during morning hours Monday through Thursday. Children come from Davis and surrounding communities and are selected from diverse ethnic, family and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Most sought-after daycare in town

The center offers the most sought-after daycare in town, with its ratio of one caregiver to two infants, one caregiver to three toddlers and 1 to 5 for preschoolers. The rich ratio is deliberate, not only for the children but also for the students who are the caregivers, says Kathleen Grey, academic specialist for family development programs.

That's because the center, part of the campus's human and community development department, provides much more than daycare. It is a laboratory in which UC Davis students and researchers, as well as the center's teachers, learn and make constant observations about children's development.

In many ways, the center functions as a microcosm of the university-encompassing research, teaching and outreach. Center affiliates include medical school, psychology and human development researchers and University Extension staff.

The center is a research lab, where approximately 600 UC Davis undergraduate and graduate students come for training annually. The head teachers for each age level are akin to well-trained postdoctoral researchers who are putting their knowledge to work at the center on a temporary basis, staying just two or three years before going on to other work. The three academic specialists stay longer, but all must have their own ongoing research projects.

The learning and research environment makes the center an appealing place to work.

"That is one of the beauties of this place. We mentor each other all the time," says Kay Jeanne Gaedeke, center associate director and human development lecturer. "We're constantly providing that sounding board for each other. [Director] Carol [Rodning] calls this a laboratory of human relationship."

Measuring development through sand play

In one research project in this laboratory, human development graduate student Sara Anderson uses sand play to study children. While Ander-son observes, children select from nearly 400 objects to tell a story in a tray of sand. The children's play, as well as a questionnaire their parents answer, helps Anderson to determine a child's developmental level and learn in general "what makes them tick." Her data will be used to help researchers develop norms on how children play, Anderson says.

Another area of both study and instruction concerns the primary emotional relationship-known as attachment-between parent and child, and caregiver and child, and the impact of those relationships on a child's development. The attachment relationship provides a child's first experiences of trust, help, protection, constancy-in a nutshell, a feeling of attachment, the knowledge that a parent or caregiver will be there when needed.

One of Grey's goals, for example, is to help children with their emotional self-regulation-to help them manage their emotions before aggression occurs. "Taking toys from playmates, pulling hair, hitting and biting are behaviors seen in children as early as 13 months. Children here are taught to manage their emotions, a self-regulation that comes from an attachment relationship. We work with parents and talk with them about the importance of their attachment with their children," Grey says.

Helping kids resolve conflicts

Conflict resolution at the center is active and swift. As two children attempt simultaneously to ride on a rocking horse in the toddler room, a teacher quietly moves in, describing the situation to the children. "Matthew [made-up name] wants to keep riding the horse, and Jody [made-up name], it looks as though you want to ride it, also." She describes what the children are feeling, using both what's known at the center as "reflecting" and "sportscasting" to help the children sort it out. The words appear to soothe the children. No temper tantrums arise. Matthew decides he's ridden the horse long enough.

"We teach the children how to problem solve, so they don't have to rely on an adult and they have a repertoire of skills to self-manage," says Lynn Arner-Cross, the center's preschool academic specialist during the 1998-99 academic year. "The children who've been with us all the way through can clearly identify their feelings and those of others, and can negotiate in situations and be empathetic."

For center director and human development professor Rodning, nothing is more important than these relationships. And for human development undergraduate students who spend part of their class time at the center, nothing is more important to understand-and often the students can learn about the importance of a child's primary relationships only through their experience at the center.

"After being on the floor with the children getting firsthand what it means to be in a relationship, the students say, 'aha!' We can send students away with the information and get them thinking they'd like to do research about it," Gaedeke says.

Grey and the other specialists also work closely with the children's parents. "I wanted so badly to have resources when I was a young mother," Grey says. "I really felt at a loss trying to be an effective parent when my children were young." Today, through the center's outreach into the community and work with individual parents, Grey offers to others the child-rearing help she sought.

Parents of children who attend the center rely on the expertise of the center's teaching staff.

"Every day I encounter child-care experts," says parent Walsh. "The teachers are very interested in the process. They are continuing to influence our relationship.

"This is our source of information. Our parents are distant, so Kathleen Grey helps us."

Media contact(s)

Susanne Rockwell, Web and new media editor, (530) 752-2542,