Experiments in playtime: He stepped out and I stepped in again

Ever since Zoe Kelly spent an afternoon in the infant and child research laboratory in Trinity College with her partner, Brian Doherty, and their son, Oliver, she has been recommending it to friends as “a really fun thing to do”.

The Co Kildare family fitted the profile of participants who the researchers are currently looking for: a mother and father whose first language is English, with a child aged between 22 and 26 months.

Kelly came across the lab when she was doing an internet search for things to do with children in Dublin city centre and made inquiries about taking part. With the couple both working – she’s a legal executive and he a construction foreman – they opted for a Saturday, 3pm session, after Oliver’s nap.

She sat in the room first with Oliver while her partner filled in a questionnaire on a computer and also answered face-to-face questions with a researcher elsewhere.


Masters student Cal McDonagh left Kelly and Oliver with a box of toys and they were verbally guided through a series of simple games, such as matching colours or putting jigsaw pieces into the picture, before the activities became a bit harder. Then she switched places with Brian, and later all three were in the room.

You forget very quickly that you are being filmed, says Kelly. However, she soon became very conscious of her tendency to help Oliver.

“If we were at home and he couldn’t do something, I would let him try it once and if he couldn’t do it, I would show him how to do it.”

In the lab she found she had to hold herself back and was very surprised how quickly Oliver would then do it himself.

“I know Brian and myself would be completely different in that way: Brian would watch him until the child is completely annoyed and then would help him, whereas I would step in. I learned that about us.”

Oliver too had a “brilliant time”, she says. “We thought he would be exhausted afterwards but we managed to have dinner out in town after it. He was obviously buzzing from his experience there.”

They would both be quite happy to bring him back for follow-up research, she adds.

In addition to seeking more couples who fit the profile for this current phase of research, the lab is also looking for a diversity of families with young children of varying ages for future studies. So anybody with a newborn baby, or older, who is interested in taking part is welcome to register to go on a participants’ panel.