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.”





Children and youth bear the burden of Covid-19


This article was written by Canadian health professionals, Brae Anne McArthur, Nicole Racine and Sheri Madigan (The Conversation Credit: Shutterstock). They report on the situation in Canada but there is no doubt that their findings may be shared globally.

The authors find that not only did youth mental health difficulties increase during COVID-19, but they became more prevalent as the pandemic persisted.

For most children and adolescents, the past year has been a shadow of a typical childhood. Instead, there have been strict stay-at-home orders, repeated opening and closures of schools, social distancing from peers and other supports, limited or no access to sport and extracurricular activities, and many missed milestones such as graduation. more

During this time, the family unit has been in crisis as well, with financial instability as well as increased psychological stress for caregivers. Independently and collectively, these events can catalyse mental health difficulties in children and youth.

At the beginning of the pandemic, children and adolescents were the lowest-risk group with regards to medical concerns and complications from COVID-19. Now, over a year into the pandemic, they have emerged as the invisible casualties of this global crisis.

Sounding the alarm to a youth mental health crisis

Many clinicians and child-health practitioners are calling attention to a youth mental health crisis. Recently, national children’s charity Children First Canada declared a #codePINK, a term commonly used in health-care settings to indicate a pediatric emergency.

Many pediatric hospitals have reported a 100-per-cent increase in admissions for mental health problems, upwards of a 200-per-cent increase in admissions for substance use and suicide attempts, and report that 70 percent of children and youth have indicated that the pandemic has affected their mental health.

Our child psychology research team sought to better understand the current state of children’s mental health globally, one year into the pandemic. This research summary, published in JAMA Pediatrics, shows that globally, one in four young people is experiencing clinically elevated depressive symptoms, while one in five is experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.

These rates are all the more alarming when compared to pre-pandemic estimates, which were closer to one in 10 youth having clinically elevated anxiety and depression. This indicates that youth mental health difficulties have likely doubled during COVID-19. 

Child and youth mental health distress may be sustained long term

When we looked deeper into which youth were struggling the most globally, we found that—consistent with pre-pandemic data—females and older youth were at greater risk for both depression and anxiety difficulties.

We also found that mental health difficulties were more prevalent as the pandemic persisted. This suggests that as the length of the pandemic continued, along with public health safety measures such as school closures and social distancing, clinically significant anxiety and depression symptoms also increased. This indicates that children and youth globally are struggling with mental health difficulties, and their symptoms are worsening as the pandemic continues. 

What can be done to help children and youth?

As researchers and psychologists, we are left wondering whether mental health difficulties in youth will continue to persist for years to come. Will their mental health deterioration be one of the most profound impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic? We think so.

Children and adolescents who endured the various disruptions and emotional and physical consequences of the pandemic are the future of our society. To help foster their well-being and our prosperity as a society, now is the time to act to protect the next generation. We have identified three primary objectives for pandemic recovery efforts aimed at improving child and youth mental health. 

  1. Take action now

We can’t wait to make services available to children who are suffering emotionally. We must act now to address a near doubling in mental health difficulties for children and youth during the pandemic. There is a need for government to develop urgent and strategic plans to address the mental health of youth and ensure the provision of accessible and equitable resources to support this initiative.

  1. Return to routine

Decades of research on child development has shown that children thrive in the context of clear and consistent routines and structure. Many of the strategies used to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have forced children and adolescents to stay indoors, resulting in disrupted routines, increased sedentary time (for example, more screen time, less physical activity) and a reduction in structured activities such as sports, camps and extracurriculars.

Keeping schools open and maintaining family routines during the pandemic can protect children’s mental health. It will also be critical to support families by ensuring they have the material and psychological resources needed to help their children.

  1. Mental health supports for children

To address this ongoing crisis, there is a need for equitable mental health services that are accessible to all children and youth. Investing in new models of care that can be adapted to increase scalability should be prioritized. This includes group and individual telemental health services (mental health services delivered by phone, texting or videoconference) and brief intervention approaches. Emerging research awaiting peer review suggests that single-session interventions for adolescent depression during COVID-19 can effectively reduce feelings of depression and hopelessness among youth. Increased access to, and availability of, mental health resources are critical.

Children and youth represent our largest investment in the future. The mental health implications of COVID-19 have been particularly dire. Although there have been some COVID-19 recovery initiatives targeted at this group, we need clear and actionable items to move forward with a mental health recovery plan that will address the increased severity of mental illness in children and adolescents and the rising need for services.

Ultimately, the policy choices we make now will have long-lasting effects on the prosperity of the next generation of youth. There is an urgent and rising demand for child and youth mental health services in Canada. Parents, practitioners, allies and policy-makers need to come together to develop methods of mental health service delivery with widespread impact to meet this demand.




Helping children with ADHD


Original report by Gerald Rucchin, University of Western Ontario

Results of a new study has been published in Frontiers in Psychology.  It was found that 10 minutes of exercise with 10 minutes of Mindfulness improved the symptoms of ADHD in school aged children.  The author, Professor Barbara Fenesi, said these findings allow teachers and parents to customise behavioural interventions to target a child’s specific needs.

“We want to identify behavioural approaches that could help manage ADHD symptoms for children and determine whether even a single, short bout of these behavioural approaches could be beneficial, rather than needing to engage in them for long periods of time,” Fenesi said.

At the same time, exercise and mindfulness meditation are non-pharmaceutical alternatives that support ADHD symptoms, especially inattention. In addition, Fenesi said most research has examined how chronic, long-term engagement of these behavioural interventions can help. There hasn’t been any research that compares the effectiveness of physical exercise and mindfulness meditation to one another—until now.

“We also wanted to compare these two behavioural approaches to see if one was superior to the other, or whether they each contributed differently to unique aspects of well-being,” she said.

Researchers worked with two community clinics in London, Ontario, to recruit children for the study. The children completed three interventions over the course of three weeks: 10 minutes of exercise, 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation, and 10 minutes of silent reading. Before and after each intervention, researchers assessed their cognitive functioning and psycho-emotional well-being.

The researchers found mindfulness meditation helps inhibitory control, working memory and task-switching, while acute exercise helps children with their psycho-emotional well-being, such as developing a positive mood.

“Our study highlights how the mind and body are connected,” Fenesi said. “In order to activate children’s intellectual minds, their bodies and mindful awareness must be activated to create an environment that’s conducive to learning.”

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.


Can Covid-19 affect children aged 5 years and younger?

The answer to this question seems to be ‘yes’.  According to a new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care, the pandemic may have made a lifelong impact on young children.

When children under the age of five years experience negative events, such as disease outbreaks, food scarcity, unrest in society and so on, they may suffer long-lasting impacts on their health, education and relationships.   We, as their caregivers, need to understand that these youngsters are vulnerable and will need to be monitored for developmental and behaviour health issues and supported throughout their lives. A potential delay of 2-4 years may occur between the initial experience(s) and the signs of mental health problems. This means that although you might recognise distress in a child now, you may continue to see more over the next 2-4 years.

Children in families that are already in stress due to lack of resources during the pandemic may be facing a higher risk. 

Older children and teens are at risk as well. Loneliness, despite many families being confined together during the pandemic, is an issue for youngsters, making them more likely to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety that can persist post-pandemic.

In the coming months and years, children and teens can be helped by encouraging them in developing and maintaining daily routines around sleeping, eating and taking care of their bodies.  The authors of article state that when a teenager is not able to keep to a routine, with appropriate support from parents or caregivers, it can be a sign that the teen is struggling and needs help.

The article, titled “Addressing the Clinical Impact of COVID-19 on Pediatric Mental Health” was published in the July/August edition of the Journal of Pediatric Health Care.







The ‘unknown’ senses – Recognising when help is needed

Last week, I discussed two ‘unknown’ and invisible senses that we rely heavily on for our daily functioning. These are the vestibular and proprioceptive senses.  They are both implicated in children’s learning and ability to behave appropriately and so deserve our notice.  

There are signs that can be red flags to indicate when a child has not developed these senses fully.   If you see any of these, it might be necessary to refer to a neurodevelopmental practitioner for help.  Here are a few of those most commonly observed but be aware that there are other clues too.

The vestibular system, also known as our balance centre, is responsible for receiving information regarding our bodies movement in space, as well as, acceleration and deceleration of movement. The receptors in this system are located in the inner ear and are stimulated by changes in head position.  Some red flags are:

  • Dislikes activities requiring feet to leave the ground
  • Seeks out rapid movement, spinning, rolling, constant motion
  • Moves slowly or cautiously or avoids excess movement
  • Experiences motion sickness or dizziness
  • Appears to never become dizzy with excessive spinning
  • Poor safety awareness or impulsive jumping, running and/or climbing
  • Dislikes/prefers changes in positions
  • Frequent head tilting
  • Might rock in a chair or rock the body when seated

Proprioception informs us of our body position in space. The receptors for this system are found in our muscles and joints and they send information to our brain about where our body is and how much force we are using. Proprioception is important in building body awareness and achieving motor milestones.

Red flags for difficulty with proprioceptive processing:

  • Frequent crashing, bumping, climbing, falling, or jumping
  • Frequent kicking while sitting or stomping feet while walking
  • Bumps into you when walking together
  • Enjoys deep pressure or being “squished”; Prefers tight clothing
  • Uses too much force when writing or colouring
  • Plays roughly with other children
  • Misjudges the amount of force required to pick up objects – can break objects
  • Difficulty with sleep – prefers sleeping with another person, stuffed toys or being tightly wrapped in blankets
  • Sleepwalks or falls out of bed
  • Struggles to acquire number sense and maths skills
  • Has a poor sense of direction

Children with these underdeveloped sensory motor senses can often be labelled as hyperactive, clumsy, undisciplined, unfocused, disinterested and naughty.   We have to be cautious about labelling children too quickly and overlooking what might be the underlying causes of their behaviour. 



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