Why Alone? Sensing Children’s Social Interactions in the Playground

Why Alone? Sensing Children’s Social   Interactions in the Playground

With their increasingly sophisticated sensing capacity, mobile phones have been repeatedly used as pervasive, low-cost sensing devices in everyday life [5, 6]. In our line of work we attempt to employ mobile phones as a platform for sensing primary school students’ social participation in the school community.Over the past decade, schools have increasingly shifted towards inclusive education [10]. Rather than dividing students across regular and special education schools, inclusive education argues for ‘one school for all’. Next to its educational benefits, one of the main arguments for inclusive education is the increased social participation of children with learning and communication disabilities in regular, as opposed to special education schools [3]. However, despite the attention given to inclusive education in recent years, researchers have criticized a lack of empirical evidence on how exclusion is manifested in actual students’ behaviours [14]. Even when studies have tried to capture how exclusion is manifested in students’ social interactions within the class and during play time, their focus was limited to a number of school cases as well as particular dimensions of diversity, thus leading to an uncertainty of how such results may generalize to the larger population and how educational exclusion is manifested at large [7, 9, 15]. Existing methodological tools rely largely on selfreporting, either from teachers or students, and are thus susceptible to a number of biases. For instance, teachers have been found to overestimate the social participation of disadvantaged children [8]. In our line of work we attempt to develop technology that senses children’s social interactions in the playground [see [2, 11, 12] for earlier studies]. More specifically, we have developed a Google Android application that infers children pair-wise proximity during free play in open spaces (such as the playground) through frequently sampling the Bluetooth RSSI of nearby devices. Data are then modelled as a social network, thus enabling us to understand both how given students participate in the school community but also how inclusive the community is overall, and respective changes over time. In the remainder of this paper we describe how Proximy senses students’ social interaction, and present our early insights from the deployment of Proximy with 137 students over a period of 3 weeks.


Sensing social interactions with Proximy

Physical proximity has been repeatedly found to be a relevant indicator of social interaction in a number of settings [6, 13]. To sense students’ pair-wise proximity we employ a cost-effective solution using smartphones, strapped around students’ waists (see Figure 2). Proximy samples for nearby devices and their respective RSSI values every 10 seconds.


Figure 1. RSSI intersected with distance and rotation, dash line represents 4 meters

Figure 1. RSSI intersected with distance and rotation, dash line represents 4 meters

An empirical evaluation sought to test Proximy’s effectiveness in reliably discriminating between different ranges of proximity. Ten subjects wearing smartphones with Proximy were asked to stand in relative proximity of 1-10 meters, and with relative angle of 0 (facing each other), 90, 180 and 270 degrees. Figure 1 highlights the mean RSSI values for each condition (along with 95% Confidence Intervals). One may quickly note that the relative orientation does play a significant role. However, we find that we may reliably infer a pair-wise proximity of 4 meters or less when the RSSI value is -71 or higher, irrespectively of the relative angle of the two subjects, with the of 180° (which most likely reflects the absence of social interaction).

Figure 2. Each child carries a pouch with a smartphone, strapped around his or her waist. Proximy samples for nearby devices and their Bluetooth RSSI values.

Figure 2. Each child carries a pouch with a smartphone, strapped around his or her waist. Proximy samples for nearby devices and their Bluetooth RSSI values.

Figure 3. Proximity network of students from a 2nd year class

Figure 3. Proximity network of students from a 2nd year clas












Deploying Proximy in the wild

We have deployed Proximy over a three-week-long study with a total of 137 students of age seven to ten years old (six classrooms in total), sensing students’ social interactions during free play in outdoor space (see Figure 2). Students were given their personal pouch with the smartphone as they exited the classroom and headed towards the open space. Over the course of the three weeks, and during two breaks of length of 45 minutes each, proximy was sampling for nearby devices and logging their signal strength (RSSI) every 12 sec. Data were cleaned to remove initial and final samples, were all students would get together to pick up and deliver their pouches. RSSI values of -71 or higher would indicate physical proximity. Data were then modelled as a weighted network (see Figure 3 for an example), with the total number of samples between any two students being reflected in the weight of the link between the two nodes in the network.

In order to analyse the validity of proximy as a tool measuring social interactions in the school community we employed established questionnaires measuring social participation and wellbeing in school communities, to act as ground truth data. These included: the Peer Nomination Inventory [16] which measures the acceptance and rejection of primary school children by her peers, a 24-item scale measuring loneliness experienced in school [1], the Interpersonal Competence Scale [4] with which teachers may assess the interpersonal competence of primary school children along 18 dimensions, and a checklist of diversity factors, such as the existence of learning or communication disabilities as well as their ethnic and socio-economic background. Our preliminary insights suggest that centrality metrics such as betweenness centrality, i.e., the number of times a student acts as a bridge along the shortest path between two of her peers, are moderately correlated to peer acceptance as measured through the Peer Nomination Inventory and only weekly related to experienced loneliness in school.


Conclusion and future work

In this paper we presented Proximy, a mobile app that samples Bluetooth’s signal strength (RSSI) as a way to infer children’s social interactions during free play. We found that proximity may reliably infer whether two children are closer than 4 meters or not, irrespectively of their relative orientation. Our preliminary insights suggest some validity in proximy, as reflected in moderate correlations with established psychometric measurement tools. Our current work seeks to analyse the data in more depth, through exploring different ways of modelling the data as a social network.



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