PsychologiCALL

On pretending and friendship, with Dr Jenny Gibson

May 14, 2020 SalvesenResearch Season 1 Episode 5
PsychologiCALL
On pretending and friendship, with Dr Jenny Gibson
Show Notes Transcript

Jenny is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Education at the University of Cambridge. She leads a team of research staff and postgraduate students investigating topics related to play, social development, and language development in children. During this podcast she talks to Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson about her study investigating how children's pretend play with their friends and classmates could contribute to their social development.

Jenny's lab group page is here and you can follow her on twitter here.

The paper is discussed in this episode is:
Gibson, J. L., Fink, E., Torres, P. E., Browne, W. V., & Mareva, S. (2020). Making sense of social pretense: The effect of the dyad, sex, and language ability in a large observational study of children’s behaviors in a social pretend play context. Social Development, 29(2), 526-543.

Sue:

[Podcast jingle] [ringtone] Hello? Oh, it is recording. I see the little figure. Okay, great. I will do my little spiel and then I'll introduce you. Nice. Okay. Here I go. Hi, I'm Sue from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Center at the University of Edinburgh. Uh , we are recording a podcast during lockdown about developmental psychology , uh , which seems to be a really interesting topic to be thinking about right now. And today's PsychologiCALL is with Jenny Gibson from the University of Cambridge. And she's going to be talking to me about children's pretend play. Hello Jenny! How are you doing?

Jenny:

Hi, Sue! I'm well, thanks!

Sue:

Good! Thank you for coming on our podcast!

Jenny:

Thanks for having me!

Sue:

Um , so tell me, what did you discover in this particular study we're talking about today?

Jenny:

So we discovered that children's pretend play interactions with each other are more complex and nuanced than you might , um, at first thought, think , um, and certainly more complex than perhaps some previous research has suggested. So we found that , um, when children were playing with a friend in a play-, pretend play scenario, they tended to spend about 8% of that time in character pretending to be someone else, and the rest of that time is spent doing other things , um, associated with pretend play behaviour, like setting the scene, assigning roles , um, and trying to get the other person on board in play. And also we found that , um, uh, what did we find? Oh yeah! So we found that , um, individual differences in children, so their individual abilities in language skills, for example, only explained a tiny proportion of the , um, variability in pretend play skills, much more variance was explained , um, by the dyads , the peer that they were playing with. So , um, I guess the headline is that pretend play is very much a social affair .

Sue:

Oh, great headline! Um, that's lovely! And it feels very familiar. Whenever I've tried to do pretend play with my kids. I feel like most of the time they're out of character and giving me instructions about everything I'm doing wrong within the game, right?

Jenny:

Yep! Yep!

Sue:

Um , so what motivated you to study this ? You said previous research had maybe , um , not captured this kind of detail. So was that really what, what you set out to do was to look at it in more detail or was there, what was the , the, the thing that got you started?

Jenny:

Well, there's been lots of important theories proposing links between children's play skills and their social development, and lots of them are kind of still at the very much theoretical stage or the sort of anecdotal evidence. So people talking about potential link between , um, children's play skills and their social adjustment and their mental health. But when we actually looked into the research evidence that's empirical, so that's been based on data collected out in the real world, there's actually very few findings, and what is out there is quite messy and contradictory. So in this study we wanted to go back to the very fundamental stage and just ask "what do children do when they were engaged in pretend play with each other. And how is that related to other skills ?" So this study is kind of a first step in answering that question and it's part of a much bigger study that will look at those , um , questions over time as well. So we can move beyond , um, correlational data where we're taking children's skills and abilities and linking them one point in time , but we'll actually be able to see how that predicts their future development as well.

Sue:

Hmm. That's so interesting, and so important that longitudinal point of view, I think. Um, so how, how did you go about collecting these kind of examples of pretend play?

Jenny:

Well, it's quite good fun being a , a pretend play researcher. So we've had to , um, get some toys that we knew would stimulate , um, pretend play behavior and do it relatively quickly cause there's sort of practical considerations as well. And so we worked with schools around the Cambridge area who wanted to help us with our research. Um, we , um, we got 244 children and we paired them up according to who they told us they liked to play with or who the teacher thought would be a good match for a play pair. And then we had research assistants that took them out of the classroom . So these kids were in Reception, that's , um , age 4 to 6 years in the UK, well in England specifically. Um, and then the research assistant to a quiet room , um, the toys were in there already, so it was a Playmobile set. It was either a Playmobile castle or a Playmobile zoo. And we picked up these toys based on some piloting , um, suggesting they were good toys for getting that age group really engaged and engrossed in play. And then our research assistant , um, pretended she'd forgotten something and she left the room and then we just watched what happened. So we recorded it on two video cameras , um, for around about 10 minutes. Um, I think once we'd kind of , um , edited the videos ended up about eight minutes per child.

Sue:

That's amazing! And how quick was it for them to start getting stuck into pretend play?

Jenny:

It's almost immediate! You know, for a couple of children, there was a bit of exploration of the cameras, which of course is probably playful as well. Um, but the toys are just like a magnet and they really did get stuck in very very quickly, through engaging with the toys and actually in some of the piloting phase we've tested out whether we needed to give an instruction to say, to give permission to say "you can play with these things", but actually they really didn't need it. [Laughs] The environment of having the toys there is enough of an invitation.

Sue:

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah! That's great! And so the analysis presumably then was looking at this video footage and kind of , um, marking the children's behaviours. Is that right?

Jenny:

Yeah, that's right! And I would say that, you know, I was thinking about how to describe this... Probably "painstaking" is the word ... [laughs] So you , um, watch videos back, and there's some really nice sophisticated equipment that enables us to kind of slow down the videos and look really carefully at what's happening. Um, and we then do what we call coding, which is kind of , um, annotating the video for different behaviours of interest, or kind of speech or gestures, that are indicating engagement in play. So we had three main headlines for that. The first one was , um, what we call "calls for attention", so that was one child saying to the other "Oh look at this!", "Hey, do you see that!", could be a point... Um, the second was around negotiations, so that bit we talked about at the beginning, around giving the instructions or making joint proposals, I mean , "let's pretend the lion escaped", or " you be the zookeeper and I'll be the naughty lion",... um that kind of thing. And then finally the kind of , um, really getting stuck in and enacting. So , um , taking on that role, "Pew pew! I just shot the lion!", or something like that. There's a lot of guns involved, I have to say! [Laughs]. Interesting...

Sue:

[Laughs] That's a whole sub study. Um, and so, so you, you said there was, I can't remember exactly, but more than 200 kids in pairs , right. So that, you know, 10 minutes of footage for each pair of children , so that's like a thousand minutes of footage or whatever. So how long did it take you to code all of that?

Jenny:

Oh my goodness! That's a really good question! Um, at least a year, I think.

Sue:

Wow, wow!

Jenny:

So it's been a really long-term investment and trying to understand this role of social play . And of course , um, when you're doing this kind of thing, you need to have a reliability checks that it's not just one person's opinion about what's going on, but that you need to know that you've got a set of instructions, that an independent person could look at the same footage and draw the same conclusions. Otherwise it's not really valid to , um, make any conclusions about... So it was quite an undertaking, yeah.

Sue:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I've done some video coding work and it's, it's... [Laughs] It's quite a commitment, and I've never done it with that volume of data before, especially when there's two children, right. Presumably you're coding twice once for each child or are you coding always just the pair of children?

Jenny:

No, no, we coded them separately, precisely so that we could do this analysis that allowed us to look at the individual and the paired effect.

Sue:

Right, right, absolutely. Um, and so yes, of course. So that , that , um, that was one of the points you emphasized right at the beginning. Right? So it's about the paired effects , about how the two children are relating with each other, that's driving a lot of the complexity of the play. Is that, is that right? Have I remembered that right?

Jenny:

Yeah. I think that-, that's a fair assessment. And what's quite interesting about that is , um, people haven't really thought to do that before in play research with children this age. So you look back at parent child studies, there's quite a lot of , um , sophisticated modeling that will account for that dependency of the two actors and/or the two players in the game, and how they influence one another. But when it gets to slightly older children , um, there's a sort of very dominant individuall-, individualistic model, which tends to only look at individual skills where actually the social context seems to be really important.

Sue:

Hmm. And so what do you think that means in terms of what we, what we're learning from this particular piece of research? Um, and I guess the , um, the continuing work that you're doing, you know, what does that mean for how we're supporting children, whether in the home as , as parents, or in a school setting, or a nursery?

Jenny:

I think it underscores the social nature of play and the fact that our children create meaning together, it might not necessarily be only in pairs, it might be broader groups, but I think that interaction is really critical and there might be different properties of that interaction. And it might mean that , um, individual children will behave quite differently when they're paired , uh , with a different classmate or with a different friend, or when they're playing with their sibling . So I think that's something for adults to be mindful of as a possible , um, you know, a possible thing to think about when they think about who, who is doing which activity and who gets involved. And I think sometimes mixing it up could be quite helpful and we didn't do that in this study, but as we go through the follow- up, that's something that we'll look at , um, how d-... um , how do behaviors change according to the change in partner . So at the moment we know that they do, but we haven't really got a good grasp on what those changes are and what they could mean. So I'm looking forward to investigating that more.

Sue:

Yeah, that's-, it's really interesting that, isn't it? Because for me , um, so the, at the Salvesen Mindroom Research Center we're really interested in sort of children with additional support needs or, or special educational needs, as you'd say in England. Um, and especially, you know, as a result of some kind of , um, difficulty with learning and particularly in the social domain, of course, one's often thinking about autism and the, the , the barriers that autistic kids can experience to kind of building fulfilling friendships and stuff like that. And... And one of the solutions has often been sort of buddy schemes, you know, the sort of pairing up with a kid in the class who's often, you know, normally a neuro-typical kid who's perceived as being sort of having "good social skills" in inverted commas, right. Whatever that means. Um, and I've often wondered, you know, is that really the playmate that, that autistic child might have chosen for themselves. Um, and it , it, you know, sort of, I think there's a big question mark over those sorts of approaches. I don't know if you agree with that on the basis of what you've been doing.

Jenny:

Yeah, probably not much to say on the basis of this study in particular, but other research we've done looking at what it means to intervene in play, and the kind of issues that throws up. I think that's a really interesting point because if you're going to play and you're going to forge a co-, a social connection with someone quite often, the play activity or the thing you're interested in is going to be the , the mediating factor for that. So having a common interest is probably going to be something that draws you in , um, so that you're kind of engaged around that, and you're building and sort of reinforcing social skills through that , um, play activity, rather than just having this sort of, I think I agree with you, it's just sort of simplistic , simplistic approach to say "well, you're better at this. So show, show that person how to do it". That's not-, that's not a cooperation of equals, which is inherent to play. Um...

Sue:

Yeah...

Jenny:

So, I think we could revisit those , um... And think about sensitive matching based on , um, skill levels, interests, and , um... Yeah just preferences really.

Sue:

Yeah, absolutely! I mean , play surely has got to be about following your passions right, for it to be really fulfilling. Um, so, so , uh, we've heard a bit about the fact that this is now a longitudinal study , um, and you might look into varying the play partners. Um , so both of those I think are super cool and we'll maybe have to catch up with you again if this podcast continues [Laughs] ...

Jenny:

Yeah! [Laughs]

Sue:

[Laughs] ...beyond the current crisis situation. We'll see. Um, so what I would like to ask you though, finally, before we wrap up is , um, whether you've got any advice for people listening who are maybe kind of early career researchers, very aware of , um, students whose learning has been disrupted or, you know , um, PhD students whose projects have been thrown up in the air, and early career researchers, maybe on short-term contracts who are, you know, in an extra anxious situation because of all of the disruptions. So you've got any , um, comforting words of wisdom for , um, for those people listening, then we'd love to hear them.

Jenny:

I was thinking about this. I think the main thing that comes to mind is that everyone's situation is very different . So therefore don't compare yourself to other people and think "Oh, well, they've managed to get two papers out during the lockdown. And, you know, I can barely get out of bed". I don't think that's helpful. And I think everyone's got ups and downs and challenges. I certainly see that in my role as a PhD supervisor, all my students have been effective, but in very different ways. So you might not always see that as an individual. The second thing is to reach out to people for peer support. So , um, I've done that for a couple of colleagues , um, over this period when something's been a bit difficult and I haven't quite known what to do. I've just pinged an email off and said, you know "In lieu of a water cooler chat, can I just tell you about this that happened to me?" And it just made me feel so much more connected. Um , and that was really helpful as well. So I think people are very mindful of the difficult situations that each other are in and they're quite willing to to listen and kind of engage with that. Certainly in my experience, it's been very helpful to talk to colleagues that way.

Sue:

Hmm. That's such a good piece of advice, I think because it's relatively easy to reach out, to set up a meeting about sort of a formal topic that needs a discussion, but you're right missing that sort of chat in the kitchen while the kettle's boiling, you know, the sort of informal, just getting something off your chest that's been bothering you is, is...

Jenny:

Yeah...

Sue:

You know, it's easy to forget that that's a big part of the value of, of being in a workplace together that we're now missing out on. Um.

Jenny:

Yeah.

Sue:

Um , well I think we will draw to a close there, if that's all right, Jenny?

Jenny:

Sure, thank you!

Sue:

Thank you so much for your time. Really interesting work to talk about , um, really important thinking about play , um, right now. And for anyone listening, you'll be able to find out more about Jenny's work by following the links that we'll put up on the podcast page at , um, ed.ac.uk/salvesen-research. Thank you very much, Jenny! Bye!

Jenny:

Thanks Sue! Bye!

Sue:

Bye! [ringtone] Okay we did it! I thought that went quite smoothly! [Podcast jingle]