What Helps Kids Form a Connection? Synchrony

A simple activity played simultaneously helped 8-year-olds feel more connected to each other, according to a new study by an I-LABS researcher.

Children who did the same activity – a rhythmic game played on a computer – but not in a synchronous way did not report the same increase in connection.

These new findings, by I-LABS postdoctoral fellow Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, give an example of how a physical activity performed in unison helps children feel more positively toward each other.

"Synchrony is like a glue that brings people together — it's a magical connector for people," Rabinowitch said in a university news release about the study, which was published April 8 in PLOS ONE.

"The findings might be applied to formulate new strategies for education in our effort to build a more collaborative and empathic future society," she said.

Rabinowitch conducted the study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, where she was a postdoctoral fellow before coming to I-LABS. At HebrewU, she worked with Ariel Knafo, who is a professor of psychology and a co-author of the PLOS ONE paper.

In the study, the children didn’t know each other before the experiment. They came to the lab, spent a few minutes side by side in front of a video screen playing game together— tapping their fingers in response to a ball bouncing on a screen. Some children had synchronous tapping, others were out of sync.

Here's a video clip showing a short sample of the game:

After the activity, they filled out questionnaires about how similar and close they felt to the child they had been paired with. Children in the synchronous group reported a greater sense of similarity and closeness.

"The important ingredient is joint synchronized activity — it is a form of collaboration where individuals perform the same movements at the same time," Rabinowitch said.

Playing music, singing, dancing and sports such as rowing all have an element of synchrony to them, in which individuals interact together in time.

A few of years ago, Rabinowitch received media attention around the world when she had a study published in the journal Psychology of Music showing that music lessons helped build empathy in children.

Now working with Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS, Rabinowitch hopes to reveal how music, and specifically synchrony, is able to guide and improve social and emotional interactions between humans.

"This study gives important clues about how to promote pro-social behavior in children," Meltzoff said in the UW news release. "There may be a deep truth in saying that children care about being 'in tune' with others or that two people are in sync with each other."

Learn more about Rabinowitch's work in her interview with KUOW.