Welcome to the

Play, Learning, Arts, and Youth Lab!

We are a research lab in the Applied Developmental Program in the Psychology Department at George Mason University, founded in 2017. (*Formerly we were known as the Social Skills, Imagination, and Theatre (SSIT) Lab, so if you were looking for that lab, you’re in the right place!)

The Play, Learning, Arts, and Youth (PLAY) lab conducts research on children’s play, imagination, engagement in the arts, and social development. Specifically, we’re interested in both how involvement in fictional and artistic worlds affects children’s social and emotional understanding and how children understand social information in fictional worlds.




Adults and children engage with imagined worlds daily via books, television, films, theatre, play, and stories. Yet psychologists know little about the effects of this fictional engagement. We work with children of all ages, from 3- 18 years old, as well as adults, looking at how watching, listening to, and participating in fictional worlds affects them.

We study the effects of pretend play and role play on empathy, compassion and altruism, how children think about moral issues at the fiction-reality boundary, and how young children and adults understand and react to watching fictional worlds as audience members. 

Our studies range from one time visits to the lab involving brief stories or games, to longitudinal interventions of various types of play or arts activities. Children of all ages find participating with our lab fun and easy! All studies are approved by the George Mason University Institutional Review Board, and parents are given a full explanation and give permission before we speak with any child.

We work with children in preschools, parks, theaters, and museums.  The lab holds weekly open lab meetings, has opportunities for BA level research assistants, BA and MA level summer internships, and  MA, and PhD level students in the Applied Developmental Psychology Program, George Mason University.