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Want Socially Skilled Kids? Play Attention To This New Study

New research demonstrates prefrontal cortex sync during baby/parent play.

Jean Piaget said that play is the work of childhood. But even Piaget couldn’t know just how accurate that is. Research published in the latest issue of Psychological Science reveals that adult and toddler brains “sync up” during play. This research also demonstrates that when playing with a parent, pre-verbal toddlers have a great deal of activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region thought to be underdeveloped during the early toddler years.

Cutting Edge Tech Meets Play Research:

Imagine the scene – you walk into a laboratory and see parents and children playing while wearing a cap made of electrodes. No, this isn’t a scene out of a dystopian science fiction movie. It’s a groundbreaking new research method using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure blood oxygenation levels as a proxy for neural activity. In the past, specific brain region activity could only be measured via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which requires subjects to lay still as they watch movies or listen to music. This new technology allows parents and children to interact normally, which allows for more realistic analysis.

With fNIRS, adults and toddlers wear caps made of electrodes which safely and unobtrusively measure blood oxygenation levels. For the purposes of this study, several children were excluded because they kept taking off the caps, but most toddlers barely noticed them. fNIRS allows for researchers to study neural activity while it is taking place, giving us unprecedented insight into real-time neural activity.

What Really Goes on During Play?

Have you ever gazed into a baby’s eyes and felt like you were on the same wavelength? Turns out, you were! The researchers were able to directly measure the dynamic relationship between neural activation and social interaction. Toddler/adult social interaction is a lot more transactional than it seems.

When we gaze into a baby’s eyes, and the baby gazes back, that’s known as “mutual gaze.” So, you are on the same wavelength – but the baby’s wavelength precedes and influences yours!

Similarly, when adults and babies paid attention to the same object, when the adult was reflecting infant emotion, and when the adult was using “motherese” to communicate with the infant – their neural blood flow synced up.

Pre-Frontal Cortex:

The prefrontal cortex is involved in executive functions and emotion regulation. It’s involved in social prediction, planning, regulating behavior, goal-directed behavior, and social skills. In the past, the prefrontal cortex was thought to be largely underdeveloped during the pre-verbal toddler stages. Previous studies thought that the prefrontal cortex comes “online” as late as age four.

The current study was the first to demonstrate significant prefrontal cortex activity in pre-verbal children.

During the “control” condition, the adults interacted with other adults in the room, while the children played with toys. The adults took care not to speak in “motherese” and not to make eye contact with the toddlers during the control condition. As predicted, toddler and adult neural blood flow were not “synced” during these periods.

The present study showed a great deal of prefrontal cortex activity during toddler-adult play, suggesting that play is crucial for laying the groundwork for later social skills. Perhaps many existing executive functioning interventions are not as effective as they could be simply because they begin too late! We can think of adult-child play as the first executive and social skills training program children encounter.

Limitations of the Study:

Due to the need to precisely measure blood flow, toddlers who were too active were excluded from the study. Excessive “wriggling” made the caps unable to pick up precise signals. In addition, toddlers who grabbed at the caps, perhaps because they were more sensitive to the sensation of the cap on their heads, were also excluded from the study.

Implications: Parental Burnout Is More Dangerous Than We Think:

A previous study using fNIRS technology demonstrated that when parents are calm, they can “attune” to their children’s emotions. Artificially stressing parents interfered with attunement. (To read more about that study, click here.)

The current research suggests that parent-child mutual interactions are what help the prefrontal cortex develop. Crucially, mutual eye gaze appeared to be transactional – the child’s neural blood flow actually preceded the adult’s, suggesting that the child is leading the interaction. We can speculate that this is the birth of intersubjective thinking, the very beginning of theory of mind. As the child and adult co-regulate attention, many important precursors to social skills and social thinking are being formed.

We can further speculate that chronically stressed parents will not be able to provide their children with this type of attention. From a neurological perspective, burnout blocks parental attunement. Even if they want to, stress stops parents from attuning to their child’s emotional state. We can also speculate that burned out and chronically exhausted parents won’t be able to find the time or the emotional energy to play with their children.

This type of mutual parent-child play interaction might be the missing piece as to why some children enter kindergarten ready to learn emotion regulation and social skills, and others are woefully unprepared. It’s not the child’s brain we should be intervening with, it’s the parent’s brain!

Parenting is hard, and it can create a situation of chronic stress known as burnout (To read more about parental burnout, click here). The antidote to burnout appears to be self-care (To read more about self-care, click here ). To help foster social development and executive functioning, let’s first teach parents to care for themselves!

Next, we have to help parents learn about the importance of play, the need to use “motherese”, and that mutual eye gaze doesn’t just feel good, it’s also beneficial for brain development. If we can help parents understand these crucial facts, we may be able to advance social and emotional education way before preschool. Now, that’s a goal we should all “play” attention to!

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020


Piazza, E. A., Hasenfratz, L., Hasson, U., & Lew-Williams, C. (2020). Infant and Adult Brains Are Coupled to the Dynamics of Natural Communication. Psychological Science, 31(1), 6–17.