When do young children start to laugh and make jokes?

Next summer my co-authors and I publish a new book about psychology. A big part of this book discusses developmental psychology. This new study mapped young children’s ability to laugh and make jokes. The researchers did this using data involving 671 children from birth to 4 years of age, from around the world.

From the press release:

Researchers from Bristol’s School of Education sought to determine what types of humour are present in early development and the ages at which different types of humour emerge. The team created the 20-question Early Humour Survey (EHS) and asked the parents of 671 children aged 0 to 47 months from the UK, US, Australia, and Canada, to complete the five-minute survey about their child’s humour development.

The team found the earliest reported age that some children appreciated humour was 1 month, with an estimated 50% of children appreciating humour by 2 months, and 50% producing humour by 11 months. The team also show that once children produced humour, they produced it often, with half of children having joked in the last 3 hours.

Of the children surveyed, the team identified 21 different types of humour. Children under one year of age appreciated physical, visual and auditory forms of humour. This included hide and reveal games (e.g., peekaboo), tickling, funny faces, bodily humour (e.g., putting your head through your legs), funny voices and noises, chasing, and misusing objects (e.g., putting a cup on your head).

One-year-olds appreciated several types of humour that involved getting a reaction from others. This included teasing, showing hidden body parts (e.g., taking off clothes), scaring others, and taboo topics (e.g., toilet humour). They also found it funny to act like something else (e.g., an animal).

Two-year-olds’ humour reflected language development, including mislabelling, playing with concepts (e.g., dogs say moo), and nonsense words. Children in this age group were also found to demonstrate a mean streak as they appreciated making fun of others and aggressive humour (e.g., pushing someone).

Finally, 3-year-olds were found to play with social rules (e.g., saying naughty words to be funny), and showed the beginnings of understanding tricks and puns.

Dr Elena Hoicka, Associate Professor in Bristol’s School of Education and the study’s lead author, said: “Our results highlight that humour is a complex, developing process in the first four years of life. Given its universality and importance in so many aspects of children’s and adults’ lives, it is important that we develop tools to determine how humour first develops so that we can further understand not only the emergence of humour itself, but how humour may help young children function cognitively, socially, and in terms of mental health.

“The Early Humour Survey addresses an important gap of when different types of humour develop. It has the potential, with more research, to be used as a diagnostic tool in early development in terms of developmental differences, and to help inform early years educators and the UK’s national curriculum for 0-5 years.”

Abstract of the study:
We created a 20-item parent-report measure of humor development from 1 to 47 months: the Early Humor Survey (EHS). We developed the EHS with Study 1 (N = 219) using exploratory factor analysis, demonstrating the EHS works with 1- to 47-month-olds with excellent reliability and a strong correlation with age, showing its developmental trajectory. We replicated the EHS with Study 2 (N = 587), revealing a one-factor structure, showing excellent reliability, and replicating a strong correlation with age. Study 3 (N = 84) found the EHS correlated with a humor experiment, however it no longer correlated once age was accounted for, suggesting low convergent validity. Subsamples of parents from Studies 2 and 3 showed excellent inter-observer reliability between both parents, and good longitudinal stability after 6 months. Combining participants from all studies, we found the EHS is reliable across countries (Australia, United Kingdom, United States), parent education levels, and children’s age groups. We charted expected humor development by age (in months), and the expected proportion of children who would appreciate each humor type by age (in months). Finally, we found no demographic differences (e.g., country: Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States; parents’ education) in humor when pooling all data. The EHS is a valuable tool that will allow researchers to understand how humor: (1) emerges; and (2) affects other aspects of life, e.g., making friends, coping with stress, and creativity. The EHS is helpful for parents, early years educators, and children’s media, as it systematically charts early humor development.

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