Playing in the Field: Exploring Children’s Unexplained Experiences | Donna Thomas

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.


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. These types of experiences when studied with adults, are often referred to as paranormal or exceptional. 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. Adults‘ capacities to conceive of supernatural agents and events remain unquestioned, while children are viewed as incapable 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 tightly 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. 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.

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 definitions in different ways. The research shows how participatory research approaches can effectively and meaningfully involve children in paranormal or anomalous experience studies.

Program chaired by John G. Kruth. Download the Abstracts at


The Parapsychological Association is an international professional organization of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of psi (or ‘psychic’) experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition. The primary objective of the PA is to achieve a scientific understanding of these experiences.

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Published on January 19, 2024