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Using sensors to measure playground dynamics

Free playtime and physical play are of great importance to children's social development. That is the main conclusion of innovative research by developmental psychologists and computer scientists from Leiden University.

Children’s interactions at the school playground are believed to be a rich learning opportunity for social skills during preschool years. But is there a certain kind of social play that facilitates the development of social competence? In order to find out, developmental psychologists Carolien Rieffe (Leiden University) and Guida Veiga (University of Évora, Portugal) joined forces with the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science to investigate this. A paper on their study is currently in press.

Sensor technique

Traditionally, research on playground dynamics is based on parents’ and teachers’ observations. Rieffe (who is part of the Leiden Centre of Data Science) and Veiga, however, decided to use a different method. The researchers wanted to obtain a broader and more accurate perspective on children’s play, without intruding on their space and affecting their behaviour. In collaboration with researchers from the Leiden Institute for Advanced Computer Science (Joost Kok, Arno Knobbe and Ricardo Cachucho), an innovative sensor technique was used, based on radio-frequency identification devices (RFID). These sensors, which can be clipped on a child’s coat or shirt, enable the continuous registration of spatial proximity.

Different forms of play

A total of 73 preschoolers (4-6 years old) wore the RFID sensors during class recess time. Additionally, their interactions at the playground were assessed through video observation. By using this combination of methods, the researchers were able to collect large amounts of data on the frequency and duration of interactions, group size and different forms of play - such as role play, exercise and rough-and-tumble. The data was compared with assessments of children’s social competence, provided by teachers.

Free playtime

The results of the study emphasized the importance of physical play for children’s social competence. The RFID data showed that children were also more socially competent when playing in smaller peer groups. These findings also have pedagogical implications, Rieffe says: ‘While there seems to be a trend of replacing children’s unstructured free playtime with academic activities, the outcomes of our study show the importance of free exercise play. Preschool institutions’ focus on academic achievements should not deprive children from the developmentally rich opportunities they can have during outdoor recess.’

Veiga, G., de Leng, W., Cachucho, R., Ketelaar, L., Kok, J. N., Knobbe, A., Neto, C., and Rieffe, C. (2016). Social Competence at the Playground: Preschoolers During Recess. Infant and Child Development.