Monday, 2 December 2013

How young boys build imaginary worlds together

I remember, aged five or so, a friend and I were the cool police motorcyclists from the TV show CHiPs. Our props were limited to the usual paraphernalia of a suburban home and yet somehow both of us knew when the other person was on foot or on his Kawasaki motorbike, which routes through the house were motorways, where the baddies were located, and most important, we both understood the plot of our game.

For a new study, a team of psychologists in Australia has taken an interest in the conversation that allows this kind of coordinated imaginary game-play between childhood friends. Frances Hoyte and her colleagues video recorded three boys aged five to six - Alan, Bradley, and Max - as they played with each other in pairs for half an hour. Alan and Bradley had previously identified each other as being "very best friends", as had Bradley and Max. Alan and Max were "just a little bit friends."

Each pairing from this trio was asked to play together with various props available to help them on their way, including brightly coloured building blocks, wooden discs, bottle tops and pebbles. The toys were chosen deliberately to be open-ended, "so that the materials did not prescribe a specific agenda for play."

Hoyte's team identified three conversational themes in the boys' playtime interactions. The first, found in the conversations in all three pairs, the researchers called "making together". "The goal of the first talk type," the researchers said, "was to co-construct a representation of some real or imaginary object."

The second kind of talk - "sharing personal information" - was only found between the pairs of boys who were best friends. The final talk type - "storytelling" - was also found only between best friends and involved the boys bringing a fictional scenario to life. In one, Alan and Bradley blasted off into space together in a rocket. Sometimes events are described in the third person, other times the children assume the character roles themselves:
Bradley: They breathe out fire out their um shoes
Alan: There we go (noise effects)
Bradley: And then off they go
Bradley: They keep on burning their feet
Alan: Yeah
Bradley: And they don't say "ow"
Another story these boys concocted together appeared to involve shooting their entire family. The researchers chose not to dwell on the disturbing content of this particular game and focused instead on the common features of joint imaginary play, including: negotiation, sharing of power and control, and frequent use of declaratives and imperatives, and mental process verbs such as "think," "know" and "say". The researchers observed that: "The children also share a sense of what would be exciting, or appealing to imagine. Possibly, this shared outlook or view of the world underpins their narrative construction and allows them to successfully create the story together."

Hoyte and her colleagues admitted they really need to study more children and to follow patterns of changing play conversation over time. This way they'll be able to discover how friendship levels and play influence each other, and also whether joint imaginary play has consequences for language development.


Frances Hoyte, Jane Torr, and Sheila Degotardi (2013). The language of friendship: Genre in the conversations of preschool children Journal of Early Childhood Research DOI: 10.1177/1476718X13492941

--Further reading--
Kids with invisible friends have superior narrative skills
Fantasy-prone children struggle to apply lessons from fantasy stories
Background TV disrupts children's play

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

The developing minds of children have always lured my attention, partially because I love the idea that they let their imagination run wild with little judgment of their friends or close peers. They are happy playing in their own "worlds" and they have no idea that they are still learning at the same time. This blog interested me because it just so happens that in my Psychology 101 class, we're studying Piaget's Cognitive stages of Development. If I’m not mistaken, the name of the stage that Frances Hoyte and her colleagues are studying is the preoperational stage. When Alan and Bradley play they’re using symbolic thought, perhaps using the given props around them to imagine that they’re in a rocket, blasting off to space. Also, because they’re in the preoperational stage, they are increasing their development of language and social skills by communicating with one another. It’s exciting to view learning take place, especially with younger children.

Anonymous said...

The development of children starts at a young age. Throughout their entire childhood they are developing and doing so very quickly. There are different stages of development and these three boys are showing the stage that they are in through the use of their imaginations and interactions with the toys and one another. Startting with the sensorimotor stage that starts when you are first born until you are about 2 years old the child is learning about the world through their actions, allowing them to manipulate and directly experience objects. Then there is the Preoperational Stage from ages 2 to 7 years old, where the 5 year old boys would fall into. They boys are using words, images and symbols to represent the world. During this stage the childern being to have an increasing capacity for symbolic thought that is seen through the child using their imaginations while playign as the boys were doing. During this stage though they still do not fully understand that what they are imagining is not real. As they get older and move onto the Concrete Operational Stage at the age of 7 years old they become more capable of logically thinking so the things that they imagine they know are not real.

Anonymous said...

Children that are growing up is wonderful to observe and study. They continue to amaze parents, researchers, and even themselves. They discover new abilities, reveal hidden talents, and develop cognitive skills and language. In this article, they talk about 2 young boys, Bradley and Alan, whose imaginations are widely active and interact really well together. In my psychology class including the book too, we discuss about language development in children. According to linguist Noam Chomsky, every child is born with a biological predispositiion to learn language. By the time the child reaches the age of 3, they will have learned thousands of words and the complex rules of their language. Psychologist Jean Piaget also made a theory about cognitive development where the age range 2-7 kids develop from understanding simple cause and effect relationships involving the use of imagination and symbols to represent objects or actions. From the age range 7-11, the kids development proceeds thoughts to logical solutions to concentrate problems. These 2 boys display much development in their imagination.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how children's minds are able to run wild. This reminds me of things I have learned in my Psychology 101. The reason most children's activities might not make sense to adults is because they have not yet completely developed a logical understanding of society. According to Piaget's Theory, children go through a preoperational stage from about age 2 to 7. The boys in this article perfectly fit into the age range and description of this stage. The most prevalent characteristic of this stage is the children's ability to engage in symbolic thought. This is the ability to use words, images, and symbols to represent the world. Although a child's understanding of symbols remain immature, it makes activities especially fun by expanding their imagination.

Unknown said...

This column describes how children have imaginary worlds with each other. I then wondered why children dont have imaginary relationships with older people or adults.Person perception has a lot to do with the actions of a little kid, if a kids perception of an adult is based on the actions and behavior of their parents than they will assume that every adult is trying get them in trouble, or act like a parent to them. I believe kids social categorize one another by their similarities and differences. If two kids have a lot in common then they are more likely to engage in the imaginary activity.

Anonymous said...

Nick Goodwin
Psych 101
Mitch Harden

Childhood is an amazing thing, nothing to worry about, the world is your playground and you are whatever you imagine yourself to be. I am currently in a Psychology 101 class and we just so happened to study Piaget’s cognitive stages of development. The name of the stage is called the preoperational stage. Children are so imaginative when they play it is surely a pleasure to observe children develop their mental processes, language and social skills all at the same time. The best thing about it is that they don’t even know it’s happening!

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