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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The role of physical activity and touch in children’s social bonding

  • Author(s): Jefferies, Megan
  • Tunçgenç, Bahar
  • Cohen, Emma
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

Physical activity (PA) and touch, long known to facilitate interpersonal affiliation in adults and non-human primates, are common elements of children’s free play. However, no research has examined how children’s play involving PA and touch is linked with social bonding (i.e., positive emotional states and behaviors that help create, maintain and characterize affiliation and attachment among individuals). This paper reports on two novel studies designed to explore these links in children’s play. In two studies, we investigated associations between PA, touch and prosociality in 5-to-8-year-old children. In a naturalistic observation study (N = 50), we assessed the amount of PA, smiling/laughing, touch, and prosociality in children’s play behavior during school breaks. PA levels were also measured indirectly via heart rate monitors (HRM). The findings revealed that observed-PA was associated with the amount of smiling/laughing. PA (observed and HRM) was also associated with the amount of touch. In a second study (N = 84), we experimentally tested the effect of touch on helping behavior in the context of physically-active play. In pairs, children ran to collect felt shapes which they placed either onto each other (touch condition) or onto a board (no-touch condition). Subsequent helping behavior was assessed in a separate task. There was a non-significant trend towards more helping in the touch condition. We discuss the findings in terms of the significance of PA and touch for social bonding in childhood and offer suggestions for future research in this underexplored area.


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