The National Institutes of Health announced a $6,341,419 grant to support the Play and Learning Across a Year (PLAY) project—a collaborative research initiative led by NYU researchers.

Mother playing with her son in their living room
A parent from the PLAY project playing with her infant in their home.

The National Institutes of Health announced a $6,341,419 grant to support the Play and Learning Across a Year (PLAY) project—a collaborative research initiative by 65 researchers from 45 universities across the United States and Canada. PLAY will focus on the behaviors of infants and mothers during natural activity in their homes, providing an unprecedented corpus of data, and using an innovative, transparent approach to science. The data set will consist of fully transcribed and annotated videos, parent report questionnaires, video tours of the home, digital recordings of ambient noise, and detailed demographic information on 900+ infants and mothers from across the United States. This first-of-its-kind corpus will be shareable and searchable with data spanning domains from language to locomotion, gender to gesture, and object play to emotion.

The project is led by Karen Adolph and Catherine Tamis-LeMonda of New York University and Rick Gilmore of The Pennsylvania State University.

“We know that play is central to healthy infant development, but we know almost nothing about what parents and children actually do when they play,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “The PLAY project will tell us.”

PLAY innovates a transparent, synergistic approach to behavioral science. The traditional approach is for individual researchers to collect small datasets on specific research questions within their own labs. Typically, many details about how data is collected, scored, and analyzed are not captured or shared. Instead, the PLAY Project leverages the expertise of 65 researchers across varied fields of developmental science to design standardized methods for collecting, transcribing, and scoring video and questionnaire data. All of the methods and procedures are documented on video and openly shared with other researchers who can extend the procedures to new populations to address new scientific questions on health and development.

The Data
Data will come from 30 geographically diverse sites across the US representing rural, suburban, and urban communities with different races, ethnicities, and socio-economic status, including English- and Spanish-speaking households. All protocols, videos, questionnaires, and transcriptions and annotations will be openly shared in perpetuity with the wider research community in the Databrary web-based library housed at NYU. This large-scale dataset of infant-mother behavior from over 900 families represents a novel way of doing big data behavioral science.

The PLAY video recordings will include an hour of natural activity in the home focusing on infants at 12, 18, and 24 months of age. Infants show remarkable gains in communication, object interaction, locomotion, and emotion regulation over this period. The project's cross-domain approach will allow researchers to address critical questions about behavioral, developmental, and environmental cascades— how infants and mothers interact in real time, how changes in one domain affect others, and how the home environment shapes behavior.

“Video captures behavior in all of its richness and complexity, and video documents procedures with exquisite fidelity,” said Karen Adolph, professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. “By collecting, coding, and sharing videos of infants and mothers at play, we will demonstrate how the widespread use of video can make behavioral science more robust and reproducible. And, by openly sharing the videos with other researchers, we will accelerate discovery for decades to come.”

PLAY researchers, each with expertise in different aspects of infant development, will collect or score a small sample of video data at their own college or university. But because all methods are standardized, the PLAY researchers will collaboratively create a large-scale corpus of behavior. Every researcher will write a research article in their field of expertise using a unique aspect of the PLAY corpus. At the end of the five-year grant period, the corpus will be shared with the entire research community on Databrary, an open-source, web-based, video data library.

Inspiration and Resources
NYU’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change is the central unit managing the project at the university.

The PLAY project builds on the success of Databrary, an open-source video data-sharing library developed to encourage widespread sharing of research videos in the developmental and behavioral sciences. The PLAY project will leverage Databrary’s video-sharing capabilities along with Datavyu, an open-source tool for coding behavior from video. The goal is to demonstrate the power of collaborative, transparent research for producing reuseable, shareable, cross-domain datasets.

“Video data analysis is the next frontier in computer vision and machine learning,” said Rick Gilmore, associate professor of psychology at The Pennsylvania State University. “PLAY will create a dataset of unprecedented breadth and depth that we will use to create new openly shared tools for visualization and discovery.”

Databrary has received support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Society for Research in Child Development, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Both Databrary and PLAY are part of the “big data” and open data science initiatives underway at New York University. NYU’s Division of Libraries and Information Technology Services are providing infrastructure and curation support in a close partnership with the projects.

About NYU’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change
The Institute of Human Development and Social Change (IHDSC) is the largest interdisciplinary institute on New York University’s Washington Square campus. The Institute, a joint initiative of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, Wagner School of Public Service, Faculty of Arts and Science, and the Office of the Provost, aims to break new ground through support for rigorous research and training across social, behavioral, educational, policy, and health sciences. Learn more about IHDSC at  

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