Dr Elizabeth Kilbey interview


What’s your job title, and what is your role on the show?

I’m a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in the NHS, and I’ve spent the past 15 years working with children. My role on the show is I’m one of the experts watching and making sense of what we see the children doing, and what it all means.

Why did you decide to get involved with the series?

I’m completely obsessed with child development. I did a Masters in developmental psychology and it just blew my mind. I’d spent a lot of my life working with kids – I’d been a swimming teacher and worked in play schemes, so I had the experience, and then I got the science to put it all together. From then on I just knew that I wanted to understand what children do.

How valuable is the kind of information you get filming something like this? What do you see that you wouldn’t normally see?

As a clinician, I think one of the things that clinical psychology has taught me the most is observation skills. We are people observers. I spend a lot of my time observing children – I go and do home visits, I go into classrooms. But kids are really savvy – I can go into a classroom and a kid at the back will go “Hello, Miss, you’re here to watch him…” And you think “Boom – there goes my cover.” So I never get that opportunity to see the kids completely unfiltered. I’m not a fly on the wall, I’m always influencing what I’m watching. So this is the holy grail of what I’d like to be able to do at work. How else am I ever going to see this? It’s amazing and I think it’s the purest thing I’ve ever seen. There is something just magical about being party to those little encounters between children. It’s as beautiful as it gets.

What justifies you watching these children so closely in this way?

As a clinician and an expert in child development what is so crucial to my understanding of how children develop is to watch them in interaction with others. It is through these minute-by-minute exchanges that we are able to see and hear the patterns of their social and emotional development unfolding. It’s all about relating; and being able to observe so closely how these children are managing these social exchanges with each other.

Over 50 children across three ages at a critical point of development - how does this project rank in terms of scientific significance?

This is a groundbreaking project. It has given us unprecedented access to be able to observe the children in as naturalist a setting than has ever been possible before. It is this fly on the wall approach that offers us the scientific vantage point of pure, uninfluenced observation. And this is the Holy Grail for observers of human interaction. To have the opportunity to see such a large group of children in this unique setting, during the most critical stage of their social and emotional development is an experience that is unparalleled in the scientific community.

Why concentrate on 4-6-year-olds?

It’s so much. All development is transitions – going from what you can’t do to what you can do. People think that children’s brains are small versions of adults’ brains, and they’re just not. Their brains are completely different – they have to go through a whole different set of steps and sequences – and it’s just fascinating watching them get there. At this age, they’ve got the language and the motor skills. They’ve learned so much already. They’ve gone from a baby, an inert object, to being able to do what four-year-olds can do. But they have so much more to learn. At four, they’re just starting to make the transition to going to school, so there’s a lot of preparation. At four, they’re not necessarily that socialised – they’ve not gone to school yet, so they’re bringing with them a lot of their lives and values at home. Then you get to the five-year-olds, who are the savvy crew, who are really working out the school system, and then you get to six, they’re at the top of the tree at infant school, they’ve got everything sussed out, and you think “Oh, they can do all this,” and then you go in a layer and you think “Oh no they can’t!” I just love it.

Do you notice significant differences between the age groups? What has struck you the most about these differences?

The older ones are bigger! What’s significant is that they’re a group of, say, four-year-olds, and the ones who interest me are the ones who are on the edges, the ones who are tipping developmentally into what I know five-year-olds can do. They’re all good at different things. The kids that can write neatly are not the same as the kids who can skip. But I’m always looking at the group, thinking who, developmentally, has got some work to do, and who is actually tipping over into the next category. It’s so fascinating to watch them on that journey, and to see where they’re heading.

Do the boys and girls stop playing in mixed gender groups as they get older?

I think that’s a big urban myth. Actually it’s the other way around. The four-year-olds will naturally divide along gender lines – they’re at their most aware of gender differences at that age. As they go through the school system, they get much more mixed up. They become much more interested in playing with equal partners. So someone who has got the same language skills as you is a much more interesting partner, because you can go further places. The same with your co-ordination skills or your social skills. Six year olds will pick a partner who can share the same narrative and follow the same imaginative line, whereas four-year-olds will go the boys and the girls.

What are the challenges facing kids at this age?

Each other – that’s the bottom line. They are all competent in their own right. If you give them something to do, they can get on with it. They’ll do that quite happily until someone else comes along. But when you’re four, and five, and six, someone else always comes along, because they’re interested. Under four, play is what we call ‘solo and head-down’, intent on their object. And then when you get a bit bigger, you think “Well my object is quite good, but I’m going to go and see what his object is like.” So you end up with two heads, one object – quite possibly arguing over it. But the focus is still on the pen. When you get to six, the object is slightly less interesting, and I might focus more on you, and suddenly it’s heads up, and dialogue, and you’re the key thing in play, not the object. Girls go into narrative dialogue play much quicker. As adults, we have so much control over how social we want to be. If you’re quite a quiet, introverted person who’s less socially motivated, you can live a life that suits that completely. As a child, you have enforced socialisation on a daily basis. So that’s the challenge – getting along with everyone else.

Are you present the whole time? What do you do when you’re on set?

There are three experts, and at any time two of us are on set. So it’s a six-week run, and we do four weeks each. We start in the morning, from when the children arrive, and we watch the whole day. We have a short break for lunch, but often very short, because we like watching the kids have lunch, it’s when a lot of conversation goes on. Then we’ll watch them til the close of play. And we take notes. And we have a camera on us, and we talk to the camera while stuff is going on. Then, at the end of the day we’ll compare notes and try to summarise what have been the key psychological elements of the day. We don’t always agree on stuff.

As well as being fascinating and useful, is it a fun experience, to be involved with the show?

Oh God yeah. You couldn’t possibly sit and just watch kids for seven-hours-a-day if you weren’t genuinely fascinated. We get incredibly involved in them, and we talk about them, and then suddenly we’ll go past them in the corridor, and Paul and I are always struck by how small they are. Because we’ve watched them on screen, and they just seem somehow bigger on screen.

Do you think the kids enjoy it?

Oh my God yes. We couldn’t bear it if they were unhappy. They’ve got all this freedom, and actually school is quite structured. And the resources here are fantastic. It’s brilliant, you just see them going in and they are so thrilled with what they see, with all the things to do. And they get fed! All day long!

Have you seen anything that really surprised you during filming, that made you re-evaluate your opinions?

Not necessarily re-evaluate, but it’s reminded me how amazing development is. And the fact that they just do it innately. Think of all the things they acquire. It’s not until you sit and watch all the facets of your development that you can appreciate how awesome it is. And they’re doing it through exposure and immersion. And they learn together, and from each other. As adults we think they learn everything from us, but that’s baloney. Get out of the ay and watch. They learn from each other.

What’s the best thing about working with kids?

They’re funny. And they’re so honest. I love the fact that they say what they think. I love their complete generosity of spirit. I love the uniqueness of their perspective on the world, really. When you’re four, a cardboard box is awesome.

Can you look at kids at this age and predict what sort of adults they’ll be?

No. I can hear Paul in my head disagreeing with me. And Sam, who’s a geneticist, he’d disagree as well. But no, you can’t predict what they’ll be like. They’ll experience everything. I don’t know what will captivate them, what will interest them, where their curiosity will take them. And there are so many socioeconomic factors that will influence them as people as well.

What single piece of advice would you give parents raising kids of this age?

Enjoy it. Enjoy every minute of it. Be with them. Experience them. Engage with it, because you’ll never get this time back. It’s a wonderful journey, and when they’re big and they’re different, you’ll remember it as the most magical time.

The Secret Life Of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds is on Channel 4 from Tuesday 3rd November at 8.00pm

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