Current Lab Research
How can pretend play and acting help children's social and emotional skills?
A central question guiding the lab's research is whether involvement in acting training, dramatic pretend play and role play can increase social cognitive skills, specifically emotional control, theory of mind, empathy, compassion, and emotion regulation. Actors must portray multiple and varied characters over time--whether or not they identify with those characters. Thus, they may become experts in understanding others’ (and their own) minds and emotions. We work with all ages- from preschool aged children through adults, typically developing, atypically developing, and at-risk, to look at when and how acting training changes social cognition. "Acting" training is highly flexible, encompassing everything from improvisational drama games to body and voice exercises, to intense, scripted character and scene study. It is common to hear far-reaching claims made about the kinds of skills learned from the arts, but these claims are almost always based or correlational rather than causal evidence. Our research demonstrates that acting experiences may be causally implicated in increased emotional control, theory of mind, empathy, and the use of adaptive emotion regulation strategies. Current work investigates the impact of musical theatre lessons on the social communication of children with ASD, and the effects of improvisational drama games for 4 year old at-risk preschool children.
How do children and adults understand social information in pretend worlds?
A second area of research examines the experience of viewing fictional worlds and pretense, specifically how children and adults understand, react to, and insert themselves into the fictional worlds they view. We investigate children and adult's social categorization of individuals in pretend and enacted scenarios. We specifically explore how children and adults understand the constancy of moral, biological, psychological, and learned skills during pretense and acting: how one can pretend to be someone else but keep one’s own traits. How can reasoning that is otherwise essentialist in nature be "thrown off" by placing it in realistic pretend?
Understanding Santa and Live Princesses
Children see movies involving Santa Claus, Cinderella, and Superman. Then, they read books, play with dolls, and pretend to be such characters. Researchers have established relatively clearly that children understand these activities to be pretend. But what happens, then, when a child gets a chance to interact with a real, live version of Santa, Cinderella, or Superman at a theme park, mall, or birthday party? We are studying how and when children understand these live versions of fictional characters, how this understanding is related to other types of beliefs, and how parents explain such characters.