Playground Politics: Fun Children More Popular & Better Liked, Study Finds

BOCA RATON, Fla. — When it comes to playground and playdate power hierarchies, it’s the fun children who reign supreme. Being fun is serious business and a major indicator of adolescent popularity, according to a new study conducted at Florida Atlantic University.

While it’s already been well established that popular, well-liked children are usually outgoing, assertive, and smart, the role of being fun was one aspect of child-to-child interactions that hadn’t been studied all that much. So, the team at FAU decided to investigate just how important being fun is for childhood social interactions. They discovered that being fun is a big asset for a child, and provides a number of special benefits.

Children living in both Florida and the South American country Columbia were studied for this project. More specifically, researchers wanted to see if being fun was directly correlated with a child’s popularity. They looked to see if peer perceptions regarding a child’s ability to be fun would predict that child’s overall popularity.

In short, the findings were very clear: it pays off in a big way to be fun. Over a two month period, children who were perceived by their classmates as someone who is fun to be around saw their popularity steadily increase. They were also described as well-liked by most of their peers. Notably, this relationship even held true after researchers accounted for other influential popularity factors like prosocial behavior, athletic ability, leadership, etc.

“Our study is novel in that no research has unambiguously measured peer perceptions of classmates who are fun and no longitudinal studies have examined whether being fun uniquely anticipates subsequent changes in peer social status,” says Brett Laursen, Ph.D., lead author and a professor in the Department of Psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, in a release. “The findings also are important because until now only prosocial behavior and leadership have been demonstrated to prospectively predict changes in both likeability and popularity.”

All in all, the study involved two groups of children between the ages of 9-12. The first group consisted of 306 girls and 305 boys in northern Colombia, and the second group featured 363 girls and 299 boys living in south Florida. All collected data came from peer reporting, meaning no child was asked to evaluate themselves. These results are especially noteworthy because the same patterns emerged among two groups of children living hundreds of miles away from each other.

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That age group was chosen because that’s around the time when social perceptions and popularity became important considerations for the average adolescent.

“We had good reasons to suspect that being fun would uniquely contribute to a child’s social status. Obviously, fun is intrinsically rewarding. Fun peers are rewarding companions and rewarding companions enjoy higher social status than non-rewarding companions,” Laursen explains. “But the benefits of fun probably extend well beyond their immediate rewards. Fun experiences provide positive stimulation that promotes creativity. Being fun can protect against rejection insofar as it raises the child’s worth to the group and minimizes the prospect that others will habituate to the child’s presence. Finally, changes in the brain in the early middle school years increase the salience of rewards derived from novelty, in general, and fun, in particular. Children and adolescents are, quite literally, fun-seekers.”

Of course, all of this begs the nagging question: what makes a child fun? In a nutshell, researchers suggest that “being fun” can spring from any number of personality traits that make a child rewarding to be around.

“One potential combination is surgency and ego resilience, which make the child a novel and exciting companion,” Laursen speculates. “Fun children are probably also socially adept, and have high levels of perspective taking and social skills.”

The study is published in Journal of Personality.

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