Playing in the Field: Exploring Children’s Unexplained Experiences

Course Information


Donna Thomas 
University of Central Lancashire
, Preston, UK 

Introduction: Unexplained experiences in childhood, such as telepathy, premonitions, OBE’s, voice-hearing and others, is an under researched topic, often studied in closed clinical contexts (Thomas, 2021). These types of experiences when studied with adults, are often referred to as paranormal or exceptional (Cardena et al., 2000; Roxburgh & Roe, 2014). Children tend to be excluded from these types of studies, lending unexplained experiences in childhood to be an under-researched topic. Some of the main reasons for the exclusion of children may be based on how children are viewed as fantasists or artificialists (Piaget, in Keleman, 2004). Adults‘ capacities to conceive of supernatural agents and events remain unquestioned, while children are viewed as incapabale of competently making sense of their experiences. In many ways, children’s ways of being and states of consciousness (such as play) remain unexplained but may be tighly correlated with their unexplained experiences. In this presentation, I share details from several recent studies and discuss the key findings that are emerging from the research. Through their experiences, children are challenging the mainstream model of reality and call for a rethinking of what it means to be human.  

Approaches & Methods: Several small studies will be used to demonstrate: the types of experiences children report, catalysts for unexplained experiences in children and the socio-cultural factors that shape how these experiences are understood. For example, I include details of a study undertaken at Great Ormand Street Hospital with children who have experienced one to multiple cardiac arrests (aged 3-17 years). These children often report experiences that carry the same features as OBE’s, NDE’s, visions and others – yet are often quickly treated as ‘delirium’, without exploring these experiences with children. The studies were conducted using a participatory, qualitative approach that privileges children’s living experiences and the meanings children assign to them (Thomas & O’Kane, 1998; Dan et al., 2019). Participatory research uses methods such as narrative enquiry, art, play and observation, enabling children to fully participate and explore their own unexplained experiences. Participatory research shows further potentials for transforming how self and human experience is understood– including experiences that cannot be explained through conventional science (Thomas, 2021).  

Highlights: Some of the highlights emerging across several studies show:  

  • Children (and teenagers) may commonly have experiences that may be dismissed or diagnosed by well-meaning adults. These are experiences such as OBEs, Visions, hearing voices and sounds, premonitions, engaging with deceased relatives and telepathy. 
  • Aside from natural or spontaneous experiences, there may be a range of catalysts for children’s unexplained experiences, such as trauma, medical illness (i.e inflammation), crisis and activities (such as play; video game play etc.). The qualities of children’s unexplained experiences are the same regardless of different catalysts (i.e., go beyond usual ideas of personhood, time and space). 
  • Children’s unexplained experiences may carry a healing potential as children gain a wider sense of self and connectedness to others and the world. 
  • Children’s unexplained experiences are often studied in closed clinical contexts, framed as disorder or illness. Children may be resisting adult definitons in different ways. The research shows how participatory research approaches can effectivley and meaningfully involve children in paranormal or anomalous experience studies. 


Fig. 1 Drawing by a child aged 9 who sees figures in his home  

Cardeña, E., Lynn, S. J., & Krippner, S. (2000). Varieties of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence. American Psychological Association. 

Dan, D., David, D., Evie, E., Ollie, O., Thomas, D., & Larkins, C. (2019). Next steps in children and young peoples’ participation and protections from the perspectives of young researchers. Journal of Children’s Services, 14(8), 186-193. 

Keleman, D. (2004). Are children intuitive theists? Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science, 15(5), 295-301. 

Roxburgh, E., & Roe, C. (2014). Reframing voices and visions using a spiritual model: An interpretive phenomenological analysis of anomalous experiences in mediumship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 17(6), 641-653. 

Thomas, D. (2021). A participatory research study to explore the healing potential of children’s anomalous experiences. Explore. 

Thomas, N., & O’Kane, C. (1998). The ethics of participatory research with children. Children & Society, 12, 336 -348. 

Course Instructor

Donna Thomas
Donna Thomas Author

Donna has researched with children for the last 20 years on different areas of social life. In 2019, Donna was awarded with “Best Paper” by the British Psychological Society and has presented at the Science of Consciousness Conference (2020). Donna has appeared as a guest on different podcasts and recently presented at the Arthur Conan Doyle Centre. Her first book, Children’s Unexplained Experiences in a Post Materialist World will be published in November 2022.

Please log in to watch the video.

Course Information