04 Jun 2015

Best-loved toys are the ones children humanise, OU research reveals

Teddy - copyright Thinkstock

Teddy - copyright Thinkstock

New research led by The Open University sheds light on why children personify some of their toys but not others

New research from the Open University shows that while young children generally understand that toys cannot think and feel, they frequently humanise the toys that they hold especially dear.

Developmental Psychologist Dr Nathalia Gjersoe worked alongside co-researchers from Bristol University to look at whether three to four-year-olds attribute thoughts and feelings to their toys. Toys that talk, think and feel play a huge role in children’s literature and film, from classic fairy stories to modern day animated blockbusters such as Toy Story. This OU research considered attachment objects: stuffed toys or blankets to which a child forms a strong emotional attachment and which they often use to soothe themselves when upset or going to sleep. Many parents will recognise this behaviour among their children: statistics show some 60-70% of children in the UK and the USA owns a specially-loved or “attachment” object. Whilst this attachment may reach its peak at about age three, some people can hold onto and keep a strong relationship with their much-loved toy right up to adulthood.

During the research experiment, all of the children were asked to bring two toys into a lab – their attachment object plus another toy that they frequently used in imaginary play that had a face and a name. A separate group of children with no special attachment object were asked to bring in two of their favourite toys with faces and names.

In three experiments children were showed pictures of living animals and stuffed toys and told a series of stories in which the animal responded mentally while the stuffed toy reacted physically. For instance, children were asked to consider if the animal would get lonely and/or dusty after being in a box for a long time. Children were then asked whether their own toys, which they had brought into the lab, would respond more like the living animal or more like the stuffed toy, if it were left in the box. The test showed that children with no special attachment object and children who had attachment blankets (ie objects without a face) believed their toys would respond more like a stuffed toy. Children with attachment teddies, however, believed their special toy would respond more like the living animal: with thoughts and feelings.

This research revealed that even very young children are surprisingly sophisticated when thinking about toys and would differentiate between their attachment toy and other toys they simply picked up and played with, said Dr Gjersoe. Children are traditionally thought to rampantly anthropomorphise inanimate objects and learn later that only living things have thoughts and feelings. Yet in this experiment, the children only put emotional feelings to the toys to which they were especially attached, not the ones they had just brought into the room, even if they had been playing with these toys in an imaginary way.

“Perhaps most surprising is the main finding that young children do anthropomorphise their toys but only the ones they feel especially attached to - their attachment objects,” she said.

“The large majority of children said that their attachment objects would respond to the scenarios with thoughts and feelings, despite believing that other toys they owned and played with would not. Interestingly, this was the case for children with attachment teddies (i.e. toys with a face) but not attachment blankets.”

The authors conclude that children do in fact personify their toys – but only those that have a face and to which they have formed a strong emotional attachment.

Dr Gjersoe said that attachment to specific toys often begins when a baby starts sleeping in a room separate from her parents and soothes herself with a toy in the crib. The object’s function as soother may underlie children’s tendency to think about it in a different manner from other inanimate toys.

Dr Gjersoe said further research was needed to look at the way children think about attachment toys and feelings of social connectedness (in particular when children are left alone and may form emotional bonds to these objects).
This research was supported by grants from the Leverhulme Trust and Perrott-Warwick Trust to the third author.

Full study here:
Lead author: Dr Nathalia Gjersoe, L. Emily, Bruce Hood, University of Bristol


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