The secret life of 4-year-olds

Emma Norris (University College London) reviews a Channel 4 offering; includes comment from contributing psychologist Dr Sam Wass.

This one-off show followed ten 4-year olds brought together in a nursery specially rigged with cameras. The conversations, triumphs, trials and tribulations that follow are shown as they first meet and as they reconvene six months later. Experts Dr Sam Wass (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge) and Dr Paul Howard-Jones (University of Bristol) were on-hand to observe and analyse behaviour (see their experiences making the show below).

Unique to this show is its ability to track children testing and developing social interactions that we ritualise and take for granted as adults. In scenes from their first meeting, the children’s immediate separation into gendered groups and primate-like play behaviour is clear. Boys range in boisterousness as they negotiate pecking order, whilst girls play ‘Mums and Dads’. Strong personalities seem to determine in-groups, with sharers generating wider friendship groups than hoarders. ‘Sharing is caring’, don’t you know! As they reconvene six months later, big changes are clear in the children’s language skills and social interaction. Children previously aloof seem much more prepared to rekindle past relationships. The limits of friendship are also tested, with a so-called ‘love triangle’ of girls turning to isolation for one as the others seek to strengthen their friendship. We are hereby reminded how cruel children can be in managing their relationships! Insight into the children’s home life and background is given by parents, with a wide range of values and ethnicities included.

This show was definitely an entertaining watch. It evidently captured public attention, given the number of quotes and screen-grabs online the next day. However, focus tended to be on the comedy of conversation rather than the developmental insight drawn from this unique observation. Although experts were on board to analyse proceedings, discussion of the psychological processes and wider literature were very limited. Some environmental manipulations are set, such as a den-building challenge and an exposed chocolate cake. However, the rationale for these is not really described. Also, unlike other school-based fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Educating Yorkshire, cameras were not fixed to walls or structures. Instead, handheld cameras were used and infrequently seen in-shot. These seemed to grab the children’s attention at times and seem very likely to interfere with situational dynamics.

However, what this show has contributed well is a novel and intimate conversational insight at this rapidly developing age. There is so much more that could be shown: famous developmental studies could be replicated, theories discussed… perhaps scope for a longer run of shows in the future?

- Reviewed by Emma Norris, PhD Student at University College London and Associate Editor (Reviews)

Comment from Dr Sam Wass, a contributing psychologist on the programme

During filming there were a number of camera men, roving through the nursery. All of the children were wearing radio mikes. Paul and I sat behind a wall, watching all the video feeds and with a sound board so that we could choose which of the childrens' conversations to listen in to (as following twelve children at once was impossible). During this time we were being filmed for our reactions - and then during every break, Paul and I were interviewed for our comments on the previous sessions' events. After that, we met as a group and discussed new tasks that we could give the children, with an eye to nurturing and exploring the relationships that we could see developing within the group. There was a rough pre-planned activity schedule for each day's filming, but with space left to react to developing events. 

Paul and I were left pretty free by the producers to suggest ideas, and to talk about whatever interested us. The producers were particularly interested in exploring ways in which the world of children was just like that of adults - which I think is a really interesting starting point. I think the way the program turned out - focused on individual personalities, and developing relationships amongst the children - was hugely engaging for audiences, and generally the feedback we have got from other scientists has been very positive. I found taking part in the program a hugely enjoyable experience – both in terms of meeting a completely different group of people to those with whom I normally interact in academia, and in terms of getting a fresh perspective on what I do in my everyday job, which is observe and think about how children behave. If you want to do this kind of work you do, though, have to recognise that your contribution is very much a drop in the ocean – and that the big decisions get made 'upstairs'! The production team were, though, extremely responsive – interested and responsive to our comments. I think we were just particularly lucky on this programme, though. 

One final thing that was really brought home to me from this experience is that, as an academic who does a lot of engagement with 'lay' audiences, the types of 'lay' audiences I would normally give a talk to are in fact very unrepresentative of the population as a whole. So, for example, if I am doing a talk at our Cambridge Science Night – a talk for a 'lay' audience insofar as I need to assume no prior knowledge in the audience – the types of people will be scientists, interested in the scientific method, not necessarily interested in children, whereas the audience for a program such as this might be completely different. They might have no scientific background, and perhaps even have a child in the family that they're concerned about, and want answers. This poses an a interesting and very different challenge, particularly considering the numbers involved. The broadcast reached a live audience of 2.63 million!

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