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Dr. Jennifer L. Van Reet

Second in a series​: Van Reet researches pretend play

Three Professors Receive National Institutes of Health Grants

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded grants to three Providence College professors to support their research.

The Institutional Development Award’s Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) grants are designed to build up the research capacity of institutions that traditionally have not received much NIH funding.

This year, Dr. Christopher M. Bloom, associate professor of psychology, Dr. Brett J. Pellock, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Jennifer L. Van Reet, assistant professor of psychology, have all received grants. In this article, PC News focuses on Van Reet's work.

Thinking about pretending

Van Reet completed a one-year INBRE grant last year and received an extended two-year grant to support additional work. Her KidThink lab in Sowa Hall is investigating the cognitive benefit of pretend play in children.

“Pretending is something that is nearly universal in child development,” Van Reet said. “All normal developing kids do it.”

Four-year-olds can spend as much as 70 percent of their free time pretending, she said. The form of play has clear social benefits, but the researcher hopes to identify its cognitive benefits.

With the grant, she is studying what goes on in a child’s mind while pretending, or while thinking about pretending. 

The test subjects listen to stories about a character pretending — for example, that a grape is a bug, and the character squishes it on a table. Afterward, the children are shown a photo of an insect or fruit, and the researchers record how long it takes them to identify it.

During her first year of study, Van Reet learned that 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds hear that story and think about bugs, not fruit. “Kids are much slower to say apple than butterfly,” she said. “For that moment you can’t think about grapes.”

She believes they are inhibiting the idea of grapes at that moment, an effect that is strongest in younger children.

“It’s still in effect but weaker in 8- to 10-year-olds, and by the time you get to adults, it’s gone,” she said. It’s unclear why, but Van Reet said it could be that the measurements aren’t fast enough.

Because younger children are still learning so much about the world, “in order to engage in this sort of made-up world, you really have to actively ignore reality in order to see it in a new way, in an unreal way,” she said.

Her results support the field’s hypothesis that pretending involves a sort of “quarantining” feature, particularly when they are very young, like 1 or 2 years old.

“Children have to realize that you have to leave pretending in the pretending world — you can’t bring it back into the real world, or else it would mess up what you know about reality,” Van Reet said.

Van Reet has used part of the $124,983 grant to hire student workers to conduct the tests, as well as to recruit test subjects by purchasing advertisements in local publications and offering free craft projects at community events such as farmers’ markets.

— Liz F. Kay

Previously: Dr. Christopher Bloom studies a new animal model to study self-injury behavior.

Coming up: Dr. Brett Pellock studies the physiology of bacteria that break down toxic metals.


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