How does the book compare to the TV series?
Unlike the series, the book compares children across the ages. One of the chapters, for example, looks at making friends and compares four-year-olds, who tend to command, ‘Come here. Be my friend’, with five- and six-year-olds, who make friends based on shared interests and sense of humour. The book also looks deeper into what is going on in children’s brains as they manage their feelings and emotions.
Why did you decide to focus on this particular age range?
During this time, children are experiencing a huge explosion in language and taking big developmental leaps. This is the age when they develop theory of mind – the capacity to recognise others’ feelings and offer help.
From the TV series, were you able to differentiate between boys’ and girls’ learning styles, characteristics and preferences?
We did an experiment with just girls and just boys and we did see real differences. In one task to measure empathy, the five-year-olds were given lemonade spiked with salt. The boys instantly said it was horrible and couldn’t hide their disgust. The girls didn’t like the drink either, but they immediately tried to hide their feelings and told the teacher who made it that it was ‘too sweet’ or ‘too lemony’, and one asked for a glass of water.
The girls tended to be more verbal, communicative and a lot quicker to respond to instructions. However, we found that the boys were less risk-averse than the girls. In the series, in a penalty shoot-out game, the children were given the option of taking a risk on their winnings. The boys eyed the prize and took the risk, whereas the girls weighed the odds and were more cautious.
What was surprising was that both the boys and girls shared ingrained stereotypes. When they were asked to walk like the opposite sex, the boys put their hands on their hips and walked like they were on a catwalk. The girls flexed their biceps. The children weren’t born with these stereotypes so they must have learnt them.
What did you learn from the series?
How sophisticated and capable four-year-olds are. We don’t give children enough credit for what they are capable of. We need to tune into them (children) as nursery practitioners do.
The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds by Teresa Watkins and Professor Paul Howard-Jones is published by Macmillan.The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds is currently airing on Tuesdays at 8pm on Channel 4.