How 2- and 4-year-old children coordinate social interactions with peers

Federico Rossano*, Jack Terwilliger, Adrian Bangerter, Emilie Genty, Raphaela Heesen, Klaus Zuberbühler

*Corresponding author for this work

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The Interaction Engine Hypothesis postulates that humans have a unique ability and motivation for social interaction. A crucial juncture in the ontogeny of the interaction engine could be around 2–4 years of age, but observational studies of children in natural contexts are limited. These data appear critical also for comparison with non-human primates. Here, we report on focal observations on 31 children aged 2- and 4-years old in four preschools (10 h per child). Children interact with a wide range of partners, many infrequently, but with one or two close friends. Four-year olds engage in cooperative social interactions more often than 2-year olds and fight less than 2-year olds. Conversations and playing with objects are the most frequent social interaction types in both age groups. Children engage in social interactions with peers frequently (on average 13 distinct social interactions per hour) and briefly (28 s on average) and shorter than those of great apes in comparable studies. Their social interactions feature entry and exit phases about two-thirds of the time, less frequently than great apes. The results support the Interaction Engine Hypothesis, as young children manifest a remarkable motivation and ability for fast-paced interactions with multiple partners.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20210100
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1859
Early online date25 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sept 2022


  • Joint action
  • Children
  • Coordination
  • Interaction engine
  • Social relationships


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