Hi Researcher!

“Learning through pretend play is not child’s play”


Picture of Mikael JensenMikael Jensen conducts research into how children learn to play pretend games with other children, and how communication in the classroom could be better and more stimulating. He likes building blocks and describes himself as a “why-person”. 

Why did you become a researcher? 

– Because I want to structure, analyse and summarise. And because I'm the inquisitive type. At school I was probably an infuriating kid who always asked why, but at University the same thing allowed me to flourish.

Do you have a role model in the research community?

– Yes, there are actually two. The American psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, whose pioneering studies on children's imitation ability demonstrated that this is probably innate. And development psychologist Michael Tomasello, who among other things, has compared the learning ability of monkeys with that of humans, so that we can understand what is special for us humans.

Facts about Mikael Jensen:
- Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning at the University of Borås.
- Awarded his Doctorate in 2008 with the dissertation Cognitive development and the mysteries of pretend play.
- Is a qualified childcare worker and leisure-time pedagogue and has worked in childcare and in schools in several western Swedish municipalities.
- In addition to pedagogy, has also studied, for example, cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, political science, human ecology, and philosophy.
- Has just written a study resource about play theories, for use in pre-school teacher training.
-Uses the internet site www.ord.se a great deal, both for translation from English to Swedish and from Swedish to English. “But it does not have some technical terms.”
- Has written and collaborated in more than ten books which, among others, deal with play, learning and communication.
- Likes building blocks, such as Lego and Kapla, because they have an unspecified area of use. Yet believes it is doubtful whether they are really toys, as you can construct things with them. “However when you have constructed something you can use it to play.”

You conduct research on play - why?

– I started thinking about games when I worked at an after-school centre, where the children did not play very much. However, when some new 6-year olds came to the group, they played intensely and managed to get the rest of the group to join in. It was then that I became interested in the conditions of play.

What is the most important thing you have discovered in your research? 

– In my research into child's play I have looked at how children behave when they need to understand and show their own and others' intentions in pretend play. For example, how you pretend to drink a glass of water just by holding your hand as if you had a glass and make motions and facial expressions to show you are drinking. Where I have concluded that this is more complicated than previously thought, as the children both show what they pretend to do and check how this is perceived by others.” Learning through pretend play is not child's play, but it is probably important in order to communicate clearly and with feeling when they get older.

And in classroom research? 

– I’m especially interested in how questions are used here. The teacher asks questions all the time, but only expects a certain answer and this within a short time. By waiting a little longer for the answer, and being open to the pupils' own thoughts, I believe more pupils can become involved. This can improve their learning and promote more critical thinking, which is exactly what the curriculum says that the school should stimulate.

What is your favourite research method? 

– At least two different: Observations including video observations and experiments with high ecological validity. The latter means, for example, that I carry out experiments where children watch films of other children, but they do it in their normal preschool environment where they feel safe.

What is the most surprising thing you have discovered in your research? 

– One thing that did surprise me occurred when I showed the videos of children pretending to be dogs by crawling on all fours and barking. The three-year olds who saw the film were asked what the children in the film were doing, they said that ‘they were calling’. They did not understand that the children were pretending to be dogs. However, for the four and five-year olds, it was obvious that the children in the film were pretending to be dogs.

What prejudices have you noticed that people have about researchers? 

– Children usually believe that researchers can do everything. Others think that researchers are strange, talk strange and think strange. Which is sometimes true, as some are quite hard to understand. I try to be more approachable, and really hope I am.

My research on a scale: 

20% skills development time, when I engross myself in the areas I teach, such as learning and play.

10% administration

35% teaching, including lectures and seminars

30% examinations and assessments

5% supervision of students at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

In my spare time, I write about my research.

What do you do in your spare time?

– Ha-ha, researchers do not have that much free time! I write books about my research, for example. But apart from that, I like films, music, and spending time in nature. And preferably, with those I’m extremely fond of.

What will you be doing in ten years’ time?

– Probably the same thing as today.

Text and photo: Lena M Fredriksson