Do children learn better when they move their bodies instead of sitting still at their desks?

The answer to this question might be a resounding ‘yes!’.   Katie Taylor (mother, professor and researcher of learning with technology) recently contributed to The Conversation. During a Zoom class organised by her 6-year old’s  teacher, she noticed that his hands would begin to fidget with anything at hand, such as Legos and crayons.

This kind of behaviour in a classroom might suggest that he cannot pay attention, or is ‘off task’.   Is this so?  Is it perhaps more correct to understand that his fiddling actually helps him to arouse his mind and keep it focused on the task ?

The answer could be that sitting in front of a computer screen interferes with or completely detaches people from our ability to take in and process sensory information.  To learn most efficiently, our minds depend on the movement of our body parts, at best involving working with a variety of tools, being in dynamic places and having others nearby.

 The body’s role in thinking

Most notably, remote learning, as happens using Zoom classes, assumes that as long as the mind is engaged, it’s fine if the body stays still. But this argument is flawed.

Research has shown that the body needs to be interacting with the world of learning before the mind can become engaged.  That’s why learners working with a variety of tools and materials during a learning activity are better able to grasp abstract concepts, such as fractions, for example.

To ask learners to sit still while performing their work actually puts an unnecessary load on the mind. It requires them to concentrate on quieting their bodies, which are seeking out ways of making sense of the incoming information. This causes conflict. 

Get ready to move

Some learners will remain online for much of the rest of the academic year—due to health or other concerns—while others will return to classrooms.  Both models of school can better incorporate the body to support learning. The following tips are for educators designing remote or in-person classes, though parents and learners can also encourage and help sustain an active classroom culture. 

  1. Normalise movement during classes, not just during movement breaks. For instance, make a neighbourhood walk the mode of inquiry for the day’s science lesson. Ask learners to bring back their observations to the whole group.
  2. Begin every class with time to assemble different materials to think and work with, such as notebooks and different kinds of paper, various writing and drawing instruments, putty and blocks. Incorporate interaction with these tools throughout the lesson.
  3. Encourage and use gestures. If online, invite camera use, and back away to give students a wider view.
  4. Build in time for learners to tune in to how their body is feeling as a window into their emotional state.
  5. Provide opportunities for iteration, practicing a task in different contexts and with different tools and people that engage the body in different ways. The content or big idea stays the same, but shift how and with whom learners engage.
  6. Consider the classroom as extending out into the school grounds and neighbourhood. Allowing learners to experience a familiar location in a different way, with their classmates and teacher, can evoke new perspectives and thoughts.

Teachers, parents and learners can all change their expectations of what being “on task” looks like. Walking, running or dancing may not seem related to a particular task at hand, but these activities often help people do their best thinking.   Remember that activating the body activates the mind, so don’t mistake the motive to move.


Can kids be harmed wearing masks to protect against Covid-19?

Original article written by Lindsey Tanner.

According to Lindsey Tanner, who researched this question, the answer is no, there is no scientific evidence showing masks cause harm to kids’ health.  Despite this, there are claims suggesting otherwise.

The claims are circulating on social media and elsewhere, most of them being arguments that are unsupported by any evidence.  They lead to beliefs that masks can foster germs if they become moist or cause unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide. But the real experts say that washing masks routinely keeps them safe and clean.

Some argue that young children miss important visual and social cues that enhance learning and development when their classmates and teachers are wearing masks. There may be some truth in this and teachers need to take notice of this.  However, it has also been noted that children even with vision or hearing impairment learn to adapt and that others can too with help.

“We don’t know for sure that masks have no developmental effects but we do know that there are adverse effects from not trying to stop transmission,” said Dr. Emily Levy, a critical care and infection control expert at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center.

There’s strong evidence that masking children in schools can reduce COVID-19 transmission to other children and adults.

In various states in America, it’s been found that COVID-19 outbreaks are two times more common in those that do not have a mandate for mask wearing.  Studies from school districts in some states have also found that masking can greatly reduce COVID-19 transmission rates, especially when it’s combined with physical distancing and other prevention measures.

“One thing that we know about prevention, about infection control is that there isn’t a single intervention that will win the day,” said Dr. Joshua Schaffzin, director of infection prevention and control at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. But he noted there’s plenty of evidence that masking is a key component in making schools safer.

To avoid skin irritation, doctors suggest washing masks regularly, making sure they fit properly and picking masks made with soft, breathable fabric.


Science-based tips for maximising play time with children


Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

There are many studies that have contributed to our knowledge of what children need to thrive during their growing and learning years. There are fewer that help us to implement that knowledge in our everyday lives. This recent publication does just that.

A new paper led by Penn State graduate Brenna Hassinger-Das, now an assistant professor of psychology at Pace University-NYC, and Jennifer Zosh, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Brandywine, explores the science-backed core pillars of learning and examples of play spaces that incorporate them.

“We know kids in Western countries spend only 20% of their time at school, so where are they for the other 80%?” Hassinger-Das said. “They’re at home, or in the grocery store, or the park. How can we transform those everyday spaces to encourage playful learning and promote conversations between caregivers and children? We wanted to maximize these spaces and turn them into places that are fun but also support the kind of learning you do in school.”

According to previous studies, there are six core characteristics or “pillars” of learning that can maximize any experience a child has, whether it’s playing in the park, going to the shopping mall, or using a smartphone app. It seems that to support learning, experiences should be active rather than passive, engaging, meaningful, socially interactive, iterative rather than repetitive (meaning that repeated engagements should accumulate towards an end goal), and joyful.

In this study Zosh explains that they “wanted to see how we could take those pillars and apply them to communities in playful ways that support children’s learning.”

The paper—recently published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences—looked at several examples of innovative spaces that incorporated the pillars into their designs.

One example was Urban Thinkscape, an installation that turned a bus stop into a playful learning space that fosters play and conversations. One of the features incorporated was an element called Stories, which includes several icons placed on the ground with different pictures that can be used to tell stories. According to the researchers, as children go from icon to icon and create a story, they build narrative skills, which are a key part of literacy.

Even though the paper focused on public spaces that incorporated these elements, the researchers said anyone can use the pillars to enhance children’s play spaces and experiences, including parents at home and teachers at school. 

Pillar one: Active

Stay “active” as you play and interact with the child, for example, by elements of the learning curriculum into your speech and interactions.

Zosh said this could mean counting the apples out loud as you put them in your basket at the grocery store or asking your child lots of questions—such as “What would happen if we mixed these blue and yellow paints together?” or “What might happen if we stack the red square block on top of the yellow triangle block?”—can be helpful, as well.

Pillar two: Engaged

“Try to limit distractions as much as possible, including background television and your own smartphone use,” Hassinger-Das said. “These types of distractions are sometimes unavoidable, but they do have the potential to take away from these high-quality times with your child. Focusing and staying engaged during play can help you make the most of these interactions.”

Pillar three: Meaningful

Try building on topics the child is already interested in during play. If they like dinosaurs, you could suggest a make-believe scenario where you dig for dinosaur fossils at the playground. Or, you can integrate information about dinosaurs like counting how many bones they have and what they ate.

If you are reading a book set in a different country, get out a globe or a map app and explore where the country and the similarities and differences of living there. “Helping children build connections helps them weave together a rich world of understanding,” writes Zosh.

Pillar four: Socially interactive

The researchers advised letting children lead in play time while you offer support along the way. For example, let your child decide what to build with blocks while asking questions like, “What would happen if you placed that block in a different direction?” or “How many more blocks do you think it would take to build a tower as tall as you?” 

Pillar five: Iterative

Children are naturally scientific thinkers—they like to experiment, see what happens, and try again and again until something works. The researchers advised giving children opportunities to guess what will happen, conduct “experiments,” make up new words to favourite songs, and make mistakes. Every mistake leads to learning.

Pillar six: Joyful

Finally, making playtime joyful can be done in many ways, including incorporating elements of surprise.

“Playing with shadows and asking which one is bigger or how you can make your shadow grow or shrink is one way to foster surprise and joy,” Hassinger-Das said. “Similarly, think about what helps your child connect with whatever brings them joy, from construction with a cardboard box to playing vet with their stuffed animals.”





Can you stop picky eating before it starts?

Original text by Rhya Strifling, University of Kentucky. Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

There are so many picky eaters around these days that most families almost expect one or two of their children to develop a fussiness about food. Some even show a reluctance to eat at all. This makes mealtimes very stressful for everybody – and can spoil those special occasions too, when sharing a festive meal should be such a joy.

Sometimes parents misunderstand a child’s seeming avoidance of food.  You might believe a child is picky about food because they don’t seem to eat much but this might related to a child’s age and growth rate. Children aged two to five have a slower rate of growth and therefore have smaller appetites.  It’s normal for most children to eat small amounts of food at one meal—sometimes just a few bites—and then a larger amount at a later meal or the next day.  Most children have an inbuilt ability to regulate how much to eat and usually do not starve themselves. If their growth curves are within normal limits, you shouldn’t worry about how much they are eating.

One of the best ways of preventing a child from becoming a picky eater is to make mealtimes enjoyable with a variety of small portions of healthy foods. Mealtimes should be relatively short, and children should not be expected to finish all the food you put on their plates.  Some children react to this by refusing to eat if you try to force them, punish them or bargain with them. The more you try to make them eat, the more they might begin to refuse.

Provide your child with a variety of healthy food choices in small, tablespoon-sized portions, then relax and focus on your own meal. The less focus you put on what they eat, the better they will eat. If they say they don’t like what you have prepared, tell them that’s OK and give them the same food options as the rest of the family, then return to your own meal. They will either eat, or catch up at the next meal.

Encourage your child to try new foods from an early age.  A child might try a new food 10 to 15 times before developing a taste for it. Don’t be afraid to try new foods, but don’t get frustrated if your child rejects them. The best way to get children to try new foods is to eat them yourself. Be sure to give them lots of praise and encouragement for taking even the smallest bite of a new food.

To help children eat better at mealtimes, follow some of these tips:

  • Try to limit beverages prior to meals.
  • Schedule snack time instead of letting them “graze” throughout the day.
  • Serve as a role model because children to feed themselves by experimenting with new foods. 
  • Sit at the table as a family to demonstrate healthy eating choices and habits.



Can physical discipline affect a child’s brain?

This article was originally written by Rosie McCall and published on the IFL Science Facebook site. 20 SEP 2018.

Worldwide, there are only 60 countries that ban the use of corporal punishment on children in the home and at school. These include South Africa. We are aware that this legislation is largely unpopular.  Many families and teachers still approve of spanking children as a form of discipline. Mention of spanking usually brings a response along the lines of “well, we were all spanked and we turned out OK.”

However, the opinion – at least from those at the UK Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP) – is that regular spanking is not only ineffective (there are few reliable studies to show it dissuades future bad behaviour) but it can damage the health of children and adolescents. This view is supported by some research.

A review of studies, involving 75 papers over a 50-year period and more than 160,000 children, found that spanking is associated with 13 out of 17 measured outcomes, including poorer mental health in childhood and adulthood and higher levels of antisocial behaviour.

But can we believe these results?  The American College of Pediatricians released a statement in response to the research, calling the analysis “woefully inadequate” and criticizing the researchers for relying too much on correlational data and ignoring “the beneficial findings of studies that have investigated appropriate ways of spanking in disciplinary situations traditionally considered appropriate.”

Nonetheless, young brains are especially pliable and these are just a handful of the ways spanking can have an effect. 

Developmental delays:

An admittedly small-scale study published in the Annals of Global Heath earlier this year on 74 pairs of caregivers and their children found that spanking (and scolding, for that matter) was linked to developmental delays. In fact, children regularly spanked were five times as likely to experience language delays, though whether the spanking caused the language delays or vice versa (or whether there’s a third factor involved somewhere) is a little trickier to determine, so the results need to be taken with a grain of salt. 

Reduced grey matter:

A 2009 study found that corporal violence was also associated with a significant reduction in grey matter, a tissue responsible for translating the sensory information we receive into chemical data our brain can understand. It is involved in everything from hearing to speaking to our emotions and self-control. But those who had been regularly spanked as children showed a 19.1 percent decrease in gray matter volume in the right medial frontal gyrus, 14.5 percent in the left medial frontal gyrus, and 16.9 percent in the right anterior cingulate gyrus. 

Poorer mental health:

A 2012 study involving 34,600 US adults found that 2 to 7 percent of mental health disorders could be attributed to corporal punishment, specifically major depression, anxiety, and paranoia. Six percent of respondents reported being “pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit” by their parents and those that had were 59 percent more likely to be alcohol dependent, 41 percent more likely to have depression, and 24 percent more likely to have a panic disorder (again this is an association, not a cause-effect link). Which leads to…

Booze, drugs, and suicide:

In a 2017 study, researchers surveyed more than 8,000 adults aged 19 to 97 about their childhood history with spanking – the results were shocking. Those who had been spanked were 23 percent more likely to engage in moderate or heavy drinking and 32 percent more likely to use street drugs. What’s more, they were 37 percent more likely to attempt suicide.

Violent relationships:

It is not exactly surprising that children exposed to violence will go on to return the favour in adulthood, whether that is spanking their own children or hitting their partner. In a 2017 study, researchers interviewed 758 young adults and asked them how often they were spanked, slapped, or struck growing up as a physical form of punishment. They discovered that those that had were 29 percent more likely to commit violence when they were in a relationship. They were also more likely to be the receiver of violence. But it’s not just romantic relationships – a meta-analysis of 36 studies on corporal punishment found that parents who spanked their child were three times as likely to report their children as having aggressive behaviour later on.



The on-going question: Can sugar be blamed for aggressive behaviours and lack of attention?

The question of whether sugar sparks hyperactivity and other behaviour problems has been in the news for a long time.  More recently, opinions have been that the sugar link to ADHD type behaviours is a myth.  But now, a new study, reported by Unsplash/Public Domain, suggests that conditions such as aggression, attentional deficits and even bipolar disorder may be linked to sugar intake, and that it may have an evolutionary basis.

The research, out today from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and published in Evolution and Human Behavior, presents a hypothesis supporting a role for fructose, a component of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and uric acid (a fructose metabolite), in increasing the risk for these behavioural disorders.

“We present evidence that fructose, by lowering energy in cells, triggers a foraging response similar to what occurs in starvation,” said lead author Richard Johnson, MD, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Johnson outlines research that shows a foraging response stimulates risk taking, impulsivity, novelty seeking, rapid decision making, and aggressiveness to aid the securing of food as a survival response. Overactivation of this process from excess sugar intake may cause impulsive behavior that could range from ADHD, to bipolar disorder or even aggression.

“While the fructose pathway was meant to aid survival, fructose intake has skyrocketed during the last century and may be in overdrive due to the high amounts of sugar that are in the current Western diet,” Johnson adds.

The paper looks at how excessive intake of fructose present in refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup may have a contributory role in the pathogenesis of behavioural disorders that are associated with obesity and Western diet.

Johnson notes, “We do not blame aggressive behaviour on sugar, but rather note that it may be one contributor.”

Johnson recommends further studies to investigate the role of sugar and uric acid, especially with new inhibitors of fructose metabolism on the horizon.

“The identification of fructose as a risk factor does not negate the importance of genetic, familial, physical, emotional and environmental factors that shape mental health,” he adds.

Even though this study does not identify sugar as being a major cause of unwelcome behaviours, perhaps the wisest decision would be to continue to limit children’s intake of sugars, including those found in so many processed foods.


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