New research helps to illuminate the intricate relationship between children’s play, brain activity, and language development. The findings, published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, indicate that a socially-oriented region of the brain showed greater activity when kids played with dolls or a tablet with a friend, and also when they played with dolls by themselves, compared to when they used a tablet alone. This was true both among children with a high degree of autistic traits and those with few autistic traits.
Play is considered a fundamental aspect of childhood, and it’s long been recognized as a powerful tool for learning and social development. However, the specific ways in which different types of play affect children’s brains and language abilities have remained somewhat elusive.
To delve deeper into this topic, a team of researchers set out to explore how children’s play choices might shape their brains and linguistic skills. Previous studies have shown that children’s play can impact their cognitive and social development, but this new research aimed to uncover the underlying mechanisms at play.
“My previous research focused on how children learn about and with other people, so I was curious about when and how children might treat dolls like other people and use them to practice social interactions. Studying this in the context of neurodiversity allowed us the varying traits and behaviors children bring to their play,” said study author Sarah Gerson, a reader at Cardiff University and director of the Cardiff University Centre for Human Developmental Science.
The new research, part of a long-term study commissioned by Mattel, the makers of the Barbie doll, involved 57 children aged 4 to 8 years with varying levels of autistic traits. Twenty-four children were recruited from the Neurodevelopment Assessment Unit at Cardiff University, where children with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral difficulties in the classroom are referred. The other children were recruited from a participant database of local families interested in research, and these children did not have any neurodevelopmental diagnosis or developmental delays.
Autistic traits refer to a range of characteristics and behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such as challenges in understanding social cues or engaging in repetitive movements. These traits may be present in individuals who do not meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD but exhibit some degree of similarity to individuals with the condition.
The researchers used a specialized imaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity in a region known as the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS). This area of the brain is associated with social processing and plays a crucial role in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.
Children engaged in various play scenarios, including playing with dolls, playing with tablets, and playing with these toys either alone or with a partner. The researchers then analyzed how brain activity in the pSTS region differed based on these play conditions.
The researchers found that all children exhibited greater pSTS activation when playing with a social partner or with dolls alone compared to playing with a tablet alone. This suggests that social interactions and imaginative play activate similar brain regions, regardless of a child’s degree of autistic traits.
“We were surprised that brain activity while playing in different ways was similar across children with varying neurodevelopmental profiles,” Gerson told PsyPost. “The findings suggest that all children, regardless of their neurodevelopment profile, may use doll play as a tool for practicing social scenarios and developing social skills, such as empathy.”
The researchers also examined how talkativeness varied among children during different play scenarios. Children’s speech and language development are critical aspects of their overall development, and play can significantly influence this.
The study revealed that children talked more during joint play compared to solo play, a finding consistent with previous research. However, the relationship between talkativeness and play type was more nuanced for children with different degrees of autistic traits.
Children with fewer autistic traits spoke more during joint doll play, emphasizing the role of social engagement in their language development. In contrast, children with more autistic traits talked more during solo doll play. This difference may be due to social scaffolding or the masking of neurodivergent traits when interacting with others. The type of toy also influenced language use, with all children using more internal state language (ISL) about others during doll play than tablet play.
ISL refers to language used by children to describe the internal thoughts, feelings, and mental states of themselves and others during play.
Children with fewer autistic traits used more ISL about others during doll play than tablet play. This finding aligns with previous research highlighting the role of imaginative play in children’s ability to discuss the internal states of fictional characters or other people.
Interestingly, children with more autistic traits displayed a different pattern. They used more ISL about others during joint play compared to solo play. This shift in language use might be attributed to social scaffolding during interactions with others. In solo play, they had fewer social cues and may have felt less pressure to engage in this type of language.
For children with fewer autistic traits, pSTS activity was associated with talking about the internal states of others, highlighting the role of pretend play in enhancing social cognition. However, for children with more autistic traits, pSTS activity was linked to interactions with the experimenter during solo play. Doll play appeared to encourage social interaction, even during solo play.
These findings emphasize the importance of recognizing neurodiversity and the unique ways in which different children engage in play. Play serves as a crucial tool for social development, regardless of a child’s background or traits. It can provide opportunities for children to explore and learn about the world around them, develop social skills, and enhance their language abilities.
“Our results suggest that doll play could support social processing, regardless of a child’s neurodevelopmental profile, but through different pathways,” Gerson told PsyPost. “For children displaying fewer autistic traits, talking about others’ mental states related to social processing brain activity (i.e., language about others’ thoughts and emotions when playing alone with dolls).”
“While for those displaying more autistic traits, talking to others during doll play was related to social processing brain activity, even when playing by themselves (i.e., general social engagement with researchers/experimenters rather than a specific type of talking about mental states).”
As with any scientific study, there are limitations to consider. While this research provides valuable insights, it focused on a relatively small group of children. Expanding the study to include a more extensive and diverse sample could offer even deeper insights into the relationship between play, brain activity, and language development.
Additionally, this study primarily explored the immediate effects of play on brain activity and language use. Future research could delve into the long-term effects of different play experiences and their impact on children’s development.
“One of the things that we’re excited to delve into more with our next paper is exploring what kinds of play different children engaged in and how this varied based on autistic traits,” Gerson said.
The study, “Embracing neurodiversity in doll play: Investigating neural and language correlates of doll play in a neurodiverse sample“, was authored by Jennifer Keating, Salim Hashmi, Ross E. Vanderwert, Rhys M. Davies, Catherine R. G. Jones, and Sarah A. Gerson.