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Lighten Up and Let ‘Em Learn

Dec. 18, 2015|382 views

Amusing new research shows that there’s something to be said for being silly with your children. Yes. Serious people really spent time studying this none-too-weighty subject. And they concluded that being silly can have a positive impact on toddlers’ cognitive development.

Joking around and playing pretend come naturally to some parents when interacting with their little ones, and according to scientists at the University of Sheffield, England, these behaviors teach children important life lessons and skills. Who knew? I thought it was just about having fun. Well, sometimes fun is also about learning. Even children as young as 16 months learn important lessons about the difference between objective reality and joking, or pretending. Gaining that insight sets the stage for additional insights about learning, using the imagination, bonding, and thinking in abstract ways.

You might wonder how one could study such things in a lab setting. Parents’ silly jokes included things like placing a rubber chicken on their head and calling it a hat. Researchers concluded that parents supplied nonverbal cues regarding what was “real” and what was intended as a joke. And even small children were able to pick up on those cues. As a result, there was no confusion over the serious—or silly—nature of wearing a chicken on one’s head. Clearly, it was intended to be silly. And kids easily picked up on that.

Dr Elena Hoicka, from the Department of Psychology, said: "The study shows just how important play is to children's development. Parents who pretend and joke with their children offer cues to distinguish the difference between the two and toddlers take advantage of these cues to perform…The research reveals the process in which toddlers learn to distinguish joking and pretending… Knowing how to joke is good for maintaining relationships, thinking outside the box, and enjoying life. Pretending helps children to practice new skills and learn new information…So while parents may feel a bit daft putting a toy chicken on their head they can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they are helping their children develop important skills for life." I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing Dr. Hoicka loves her job.

Elena Hoicka, Jessica Butcher. Parents Produce Explicit Cues That Help Toddlers Distinguish Joking and Pretending. Cognitive Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12264