Researcher of the Month
Is fun just a frivolity?
Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden and co-author Professor Suzanne Guerin noticed that studies examining young people’s self-esteem use scales (questionnaires/surveys) which are based on limited, adult-defined criteria. In order to see if these scales adequately reflect the factors that make up children’s self-concept, they designed the Who I Am study, which aimed to find out children’s own views about their most valued activities and relationships.
They found that young people value a wide range of activities and relationships, many of which are absent from existing self-concept scales. One unexpected finding which flowed through the data was the importance of fun.
To the young people in the study, fun was not frivolous. It was fundamental, deeply significant to their most important activities and relationships, and integral to their sense of self and self-esteem.
Self-concept scales tend to focus on a narrow range of criteria that adults consider to be important to young people. These normally include academic achievement, young people’s success at competitive school sport as compared to their peers, social popularity and their relationships with parents.
In an aim to find out whether these are the things that matter to young people themselves, The Who I Am study invited 526 young people (aged 10-12) from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds in Ireland to fill out ‘identity pies’, draw pictures of their favourite things and people, and fill out surveys. Dr Tatlow-Golden then spoke 1-1 with over 100 of the children to find out why they had chosen these people/activities, what they liked about them and why they were important to them.
Rather than a narrow focus on school work and competitive sport, the young people mentioned a huge range of 147 activities that were meaningful to them. The value of these activities did not stem from being good at them (as is assumed in self-concept scales), but from a sense of skill-building and improvement, which enabled young people to feel a sense of achievement and pleasure. Relationships that mattered to them included wider family and pets, not only parents. Notably, they valued friendship, not popularity.
“Perhaps the most interesting thing about this study was the consistent mentions of ‘fun’ in young people’s descriptions of activities and relationships – including even those with pets – that were the most important to them.” (Dr Mimi-Tatlow Golden)
Throughout the study, fun was consistently at the core of what really mattered to children. Dr Tatlow-Golden describes fun as a ‘kaleidoscopic construct’ which touches on many different kinds of relationships and activities. As these children described it, fun did not always equate to laughter or heightened excitement. Fun could mean a quiet or deep experience, a meaningful relationship, spending time with a loved one or friend, learning something new or exploring a new skill.
Despite individual differences in what constitutes fun, in this study, fun always characterised the young people’s most salient activities and relationships and was intrinsic to their sense of motivation.
As well as raising questions about the validity of the content of commonly used self-concept scales, Dr Tatlow-Golden’s paper makes interesting observations about our beliefs about fun.
Adults generally have a sense that fun is a necessary and desirable part of a good childhood or that young people deserve to have time for fun. But there is also a tendency to think that fun should be had in sanctioned doses; that they shouldn’t have too much fun, or fun at the wrong times or in the wrong places. However, Dr Tatlow-Golden’s paper shows that fun appears to be crucial to the development of young people’s self-concept and self-esteem.
Implications for parents – Access to fun is a key determinant of our children’s intrinsic feelings of motivation and their self-esteem. It’s therefore something that we should seek to promote as much as we can. This does not mean spending lots of money, signing children up to numerous classes or having fun ‘all the time’. Instead, it means tuning into their interests and enabling them to have access to things that they find truly enjoyable. Follow their lead, consider their individual needs and spend time together that feels mutually enjoyable.
Implications for schools – Fun is considered differently in educational settings around the world. In the UK, learning is entwined with fun in the early years, but this lessens as children grow older. However, this study shows that fun is core to motivation, and this is something that schools might like to consider further. In all schools, though especially in inclusive settings, it’s important to bear in mind that what is fun for one person, isn’t fun for all.
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Childhood at The Open University (UK)
Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden co-directs the Open University’s Centre for Children & Young People’s Wellbeing and the RUMPUS Group: Researching Fun. Mimi’s research takes a systems and rights perspective to children and young people’s wellbeing. She specialises in complex studies integrating multiple methods and/or views of all stakeholders, and has a particular interest in children’s own views of their experience. Her research spans children’s experiences of education, their self-concept and self-esteem, mental health, and their engagement with food and food marketing – and fun. She has conducted research for national and global funders. She sits on the advisory group of the EU-funded BOOST study into mental health supports in schools and is an advisor to the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and many other organisations and governments around the world.