A study done by neuroscience researchers from Cardiff University explored the impact that playing with dolls has on children. Over a period of 18 months they monitored the brain activity of 33 children, aged between four and eight, as they played with dolls.
The study, conducted with Mattel, the makers of Barbie, is the first time neuroimaging data has been used to highlight how the brain is activated during natural doll play. As such, the researchers say it is a step forward in developmental science’s understanding of this type of play.
In the study the play was split into different sections so the Cardiff team could capture the brain activity relating to each kind of play separately – playing with the dolls on their own; playing with the dolls together with another person (a research assistant); playing with the tablet game on their own and playing with the tablet game along with another person (a research assistant).
They found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone. Furthermore, they saw far less activation of this part of the brain when the children played with tablet computers on their own. The study included both genders and the results were the same for boys and girls.
The findings of the study have been published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Lead author Dr Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science, said: “This is a completely new finding. (It) shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic.”
“We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings,” said Dr Gerson. “Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other.”
They found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone. Image is credited to Cardiff University.
The dolls used included a diverse range of Barbies and sets. Tablet play was carried out using games that allow children to engage with open and creative play (rather than a rule or goal-based games) to provide a similar play experience to doll play.
The study found that when children played alone with dolls, they showed the same levels of activation of the pSTS as they do when playing with others. When the children were left to play tablet games on their own there was far less activation of the pSTS, even though the games involved a considerable creative element.
The researchers say the study is the first step towards understanding the impact of doll play and further work is required to build on these initial findings. Dr Gerson and the Cardiff University team, along with Mattel, have committed to further neuroscience studies in 2021.
A study by Frontiers in Psychology
Are you under a deluge of constant ‘why?’ questions from your child or learner? It’s because children have an insatiable appetite to understand why things are the way they are. While researchers have been aware of children’s interest in information, they didn’t know whether it influenced children’s preferences during real-world activities, such as reading.
A new study in Frontiers in Psychology finds that children prefer storybooks containing more information about why and how things work in the world. The results could help parents and teachers to choose the most engaging books to increase children’s interest in reading, which is important in improving early literacy and language skills.
Children have a burning urge to understand the mechanics of the world around them, and frequently bombard parents and teachers with questions about how and why things work the way they do (sometimes with embarrassing consequences). Researchers have been aware of children’s appetite for causal information for some time. However, no one had previously linked this phenomenon to real-world activities such as reading or learning.
“There has been a lot of research on children’s interest in causality, but these studies almost always take place in a research lab using highly contrived procedures and activities,” explains Margaret Shavlik of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.
“We wanted to explore how this early interest in causal information might affect everyday activities with young children—such as joint book reading.”
Finding the factors that motivate children to read books is important. Encouraging young children to read more improves their early literacy and language skills and could get them off to a running start with their education. Reading books in the company of a parent or teacher is a great way for children to start reading, and simply choosing the types of book that children most prefer could be an effective way to keep them interested and motivated.
Shavlik and her colleagues hypothesized that children prefer books with more causal information. They set out to investigate whether this was true by conducting a study involving 48 children aged 3-4 years from Austin, Texas. Their study involved an adult volunteer who read two different but carefully matched storybooks to the children, and then asked them about their preferences afterwards.
“We read children two books: one rich with causal information, in this case, about why animals behave and look the way they do, and another one that was minimally causal, instead just describing animals’ features and behaviours,” said Shavlik.
The children appeared to be equally as interested and enthusiastic while reading either type of book. However, when asked which book they preferred they tended to choose the book loaded with causal information, suggesting that the children were influenced by this key difference. “We believe this result may be due to children’s natural desire to learn about how the world works,” explains Shavlik.
So, how could this help parents and teachers in their quest to get children reading? “If children do indeed prefer storybooks with causal explanations, adults might seek out more causally rich books to read with children—which might in turn increase the child’s motivation to read together, making it easier to foster early literacy,” said Shavlik.
The study gives the first indicator that causality could be a key to engaging young minds during routine learning activities. Future studies could investigate if causally-rich content can enhance specific learning outcomes, including literacy, language skills and beyond. After all, learning should be about understanding the world around us, not just memorizing information.
Mary Mountstephen is well known for her work in education. Visit her website www.marymountstephen.com to learn about her achievements and the help she offers to children with special needs. She recently posted the results of a study she did to determine whether exercise can really impact on performance in the classroom and, if so, what type of exercise is more effective? Here is a summary of her findings.
Much of the research to date has focused on aerobic movement programmes. These place emphasis on general health rather than the impact that physical activity may have on the workings of the mind. It seems that there is now growing interest in researching the use of a wider range of movement interventions that combine different types of activities to address specific needs.
Some of these activities include
– Yoga, with links between improved focus and executive functioning. Some research shows that two 60-minute sessions of yoga over a 20-week period brought improvements in ADHD type symptoms.
– Martial arts, which offers a structured approach that requires a combination of cognitive and motor approaches. This helps to increase attention, focus and self-control.
– Floor-based motor programmes, focusing on neurodevelopmental immaturities such as retained primitive reflexes have also shown potential to improve attentiveness and hyperactivity. Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) and Move to Learn are examples of approaches using this type of programme as part of their therapeutic intervention.
Combining aerobic activities with less strenuous movements can produce improvements in cognitive flexibility, working memory and inhibitory control. This is why schools are encouraged to allow children to perform aerobic exercise during the school day for a temporary enhancement of executive functioning, needed to focus, complete tasks and generally learn. Parents too can use this information. Encourage your child to join a class of yoga or martial arts, do some form of aerobic exercise (skipping is an excellent activity needing a small space outdoors) before homework or study time, and consider help for determining whether a child’s challenges with ADHD-type symptoms may be due to developmental immaturities.