Past research shows that children with disabilities in mainstream education are more likely to be targets of bullying than their peers without disabilities. This study was part of a project that aims to find ways of helping children with and without disabilities develop healthy friendships with one another.
You may remember that children (who themselves may have had a disability) were asked questions about their friendships, and their thoughts towards children with disabilities, while parents or carers filled out a questionnaire about their participating child. In a subsequent game with 3-D toys, children first chose a figure that would represent them. They were then asked to play in one of three settings at random: either a classroom, a playpark (with a zipwire and climbing wall), or a green park. Furthermore, alongside their own figure, they played with another character. This character had one of several possible disabilities, including a missing arm, a temporary cast on one leg, a hearing impairment, a visual impairment, or autism among others. Some participants were also asked to imagine the figures had a superpower of their choosing. In total, 596 children and 421 adults took part in our study during July and August, 2016.
We analysed how willingness to make friends with the figures changed in different settings after playing the game. We found in all settings, the play led to more positive friendship intentions. There was, however, a difference in friendship intentions, for children who played with a figure with a disability, between the play park or green space and the school settings. That is, the play park led to even more positive friendship intentions than did the school setting.
We also found that those who imagined a supernatural power (such as becoming invisible) had more positive friendship intentions than those who imagined a superhuman power (such as speed), and that friendship intentions were more positive again, if children were tested by an experimenter with a disability, compared to an experimenter without a disability.
Beyond children’s answers, we analysed links between parents’ and children’s answers. One correlation found was between children’s intergroup anxiety prior to the game with the 3-D toys, and their carer’s intergroup anxiety. Parents’ perceived sociability of their children was also associated with children’s perceptions of their own popularity, and negatively associated to children’s anxiety prior to the game (that is, when parents thought their child was more sociable, their children showed lower intergroup anxiety).
In summary, we can conclude that the imaginative game does have positive benefits for children’s willingness to make friends with others with a disability. We are now going to turn our attention to maximizing our sample of children with disabilities who were under-represented at the museum.