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Dr Elena Hoicka


Research Interests:

My core research area is cognitive development, focusing on creative play in early development, including humour, pretending, and creativity more broadly. This research topic has strong links to education as two of the three characteristics of effective teaching and learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage are (1) playing and exploring, and (2) creating and thinking critically (Department for Education, 2017). While this research area is central to education, there is surprisingly little experimental, quantitative research on creativity in early development. One way in which my research fills this gap is by using experimental, quantitative methods to discover that toddlers can think for themselves, through divergent thinking (generating many different ideas within a problem space) as young as 1 year (Bijvoet-van den Berg & Hoicka, 2014, Developmental Psychology; Hoicka, et al., 2016, Child Development), by inventing their own novel jokes as young as 2 years (Hoicka & Akhtar, 2011, Developmental Science), and by inventing their own acts of pretending from 3 years (Bijvoet-van den Berg & Hoicka, submitted). Furthermore, my research suggests humour and pretending have separate roles in education. While pretending might prime children to learn in a strict rule-like way, humour might prime children to allow creativity (Hoicka & Martin, 2016, Child Development). My work also ties social learning and creativity together, with several of my papers suggesting young children can socially learn  to think creatively (Hoicka & Akhtar, 2011; Hoicka, et al., 2016; Hoicka, et al., in press, British Journal of Developmental Psychology).


Screen time has come under the spotlight recently, with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending no screen time under 18 months, and only one hour with an adult until 5 years. However, the research on touchscreen use, compared to television, is sparse. I am supervising two PhD students (Birsu Kandemirci, Stephanie Powell) who are examining the effects of touchscreens on creativity with tools and objects, as well as creativity through storytelling.


A further goal is to pioneer more cost- and time-effective methods of data collection, which attracts people from various SES and cultural backgrounds. I developed a website which hosts parent surveys and engages with parents about child development. I have over 2000 children on my database worldwide, and have collected thousands of surveys examining social cognition, pretending, humour, and other topics. I am validating these surveys against children’s performance in the lab through British Academy and WARP grants.


Selected Research Grants

Centre for the Study of Mind and Nature: Individual Differences and Contextual Effects on Essentializing from Generics (co-I; PI: Rachael Sterken, £10k, 2017-18)

Women Academic Returners Program, University of Sheffield: Development of Humour, Pretending, and Deception Parent-Report Scales (PI, £10k, 2017)

Spanish Government: The formation of figurative consciousness in the primary education stage: Humor and phraseology (co-I; PI: Larissa Timofeeva Timofeev, €55k, 2017)

British Academy: Developing a parent report measure of social cognition from birth to 3 years (PI, £10k, 2016-18)

Centre for the Study of Mind and Nature: Generics, Quantifiers, and Essentializing (co-I; PI: Jennifer Saul, £10k, 2015-17)

British Academy small research grant: Intentions, Knowledge, and Trust in 3- and 4-Year-Olds. (PI, £7500, 2011-2012)

ESRC small research grant: Parents’ Linguistic, Acoustic and non-Verbal Cues for Toddler-Directed Pretense and Humour (PI, £100,000, 2010-2011)

ESRC conference grant XPrag-UK (co-I; PI Napoleon Katsos, £40,000, 2010-13).

British Academy small research grant: The acoustic features of parents' pretense and humorous toddler-directed speech. (PI, £5750, 2009-2010)


Selected Awards

Award for 3rd highest teaching ratings in Psychology Department, University of Sheffield (2014-15, £100)

Award for 2nd highest teaching ratings in Psychology Department, University of Sheffield (2013-14, £100)

ESRC Festival of Social Science: Joking and Pretending in Toddlers. (Impact Grant, PI, £1655, 2011)

British Science Association Media Fellowship: 4-week placement as a science journalist with the Scotsman, a leading Scottish newspaper, and 3-week placement with the Science Media Centre, a press office for controversial science (£4000, 2011)

George Butterworth Young Scientist Award (for best developmental psychology Ph.D. in Europe for 2007/2008; €500, 2009)


Press Coverage

*My research has extensive worldwide reach, with around 400 mentions in the media



BBC Look North, July, 2015: Early Pretending Survey

BBC News Channel; Global News Canada, June, 2015: Lying and working memory in children

Sky TV Duck Quacks don’t Echo, January, 2014: Expert on deception in children

BBC Newsnight Scotland, October, 2011: 5-minute feature on research on joking and pretending

Interviewed for: Mind in the Making: The Science of Early Learning.



Early Pretending Survey, July, 2015: BBC Radio 5, BBC World Service, BBC Radio Scotland; BBC Radio Sheffield, BBC Radio Newcastle, BBC Radio Berkshire

Lying & Working Memory, June 2015BBC Radio 4; BBC Radio 5, BBC World Service; ABC (Australia); all 39 local BBC Radio stations; Downtown Radio in Northern Ireland

Early Humour Survey, May, 2015All 39 local BBC Radio stations; additional interview for BBC Radio Sheffield

Christmas Cracker Jokes on the Naked Scientist¸December, 2014BBC Radio 5; ABC (Australia), BBC Cambridge, Naked Scientist Podcast

BBC Radio Scotland's MacAuley and Co. October, 2012-November 2013: 4 radio interviews about scaring children; practical jokes; imagination; engineering toys for girls

Joking and Pretend, October, 2011: BBC Good Morning Scotland, Central FM



Divergent Thinking in 1-year-olds August, 2016: Scientific American; BPS Research Digest

Lying & Working Memory June, 2015Around 200 sources includingBBC Online; Telegraph; Independent; The Times; Daily Mail X 2; Metro; Mirror; Yahoo News UK; Yahoo News India; USA Today; Forbes; Fox News US; Today Online- NBC television; CBS News Online; Sky News Australia; and many more in India, Australia, Malta, Pakistan, etc.

Joking & Pretending November, 2011Over 100 sources including BBC Online, Telegraph, Mirror, Daily Record, Edinburgh Evening News, Toronto Sun, and more

Toddlers’ Joking, November, 2012: BPS Research Digest,Herald, Metro

Acoustic Cues to Joking, February, 2012: BPS News

Toddlers’ Understanding of Humorous Intentions, March, 2008: APA Monitor; BPS Research Digest



Ph.D. in Psychology, Cardiff University (2007)
Humour and Intention Understanding in 18- to 36-Month-Olds
Awarded the George Butterworth Young Scientist Award for best developmental psychology Ph.D. in Europe for 2007/2008 from the European Society for Developmental Psychology

Hon. B.Sc. in Cognitive Science & Artificial Intelligence (2003)
University of Toronto
Graduated with High Distinction

PhD students


Birsu Kandemirci (2014-):  Effects of Technology and Scaffolding on Children's Creativity (funded by Turkish Government)

Stephanie Powell (2016-):  The effects of technology on young children's creativity (ESRC Studentship)

Burcu Soy (2016-):  The links between humor and social-cognition in young children (funded by Turkish Government)

Sophie Turnbull (Second Supervisor, 2014-):  The development of flexible cognition in children and adults (University of Sheffield Studentship)

Simone Bijvoet-van den Berg (2010-13):  Children's ability to generate novel actions (Psychology Studentship, University of Stirling)

Ed Donnellan (Third Supervisor, 2015-17):  The role of mental state attribution in social attention (Psychology studentship, University of Sheffield)