What do science and play have in common? A lot. I would argue that science and play are cut from the same cloth. And so does Beau Lotto.
Neuroscientist Beau Lotto thinks all people (kids included) should participate in science and, through the process of discovery, change perceptions. He’s seconded by 12-year-old Amy O’Toole, who, along with 25 of her classmates, published the first peer-reviewed article by schoolchildren, about the Blackawton bees project. It starts: “Once upon a time … ”
We know children tend to be wiggly, but we’ve also seen them sit stone still when they are engaged in a good book or toy or enraptured by a movie. A hospital in the UK is tapping into that enraptured engaged stillness.
Many adults find the procedure of having a brain scan, which involves having to lie still for an hour or more while images are analysed, an unsettling experience.The process is no less daunting for young children, who are usually given a general anaesthetic when they have the procedure.
However, a pilot scheme at University College Hospital in London is helping young people have a scan without being sedated, by teaching them about it through play.
Environmental Psychology and conservationists have, for awhile now, been advocating the importance of letting children get out and play in and with nature to educate them on the value of preserving their environment and benefiting from natural surroundings. It’s nice to see pediatricians also start to embrace and advocate for the need for everyone, including children, get outside and get dirty.
Dr. Lawrence Rosen writes that throughout his practice, seeing children on a daily basis, “I’m often reminded of Winslow Homer’s 1872 painting, “Snap the Whip,” depicting boys playing with abandon in a field outside their rural schoolhouse.”
So eloquently portrayed is the simplicity of another time, kids out in the natural world for no other purpose than to play, freely and without a care in the world.Contrast this with contemporary schoolyards with their meticulously designed jungle gyms and artificial surfacing, often empty throughout the day as more and more schools abolish recess or replace free play with highly structured, adult-supervised activities. I’ve realized, as I see increasingly anxious and depressed children come to my office looking for guidance, that the answers often lie not in my prescription pad but outside my window.
One very recent publication from Dr. Kirsten Beyer and associates at the Medical College of Wisconsin described the influence of green space on mental health outcomes, concluding that “higher levels of neighborhood green space were associated with significantly lower levels of symptomology for depression, anxiety and stress” and that “’greening’ could be a potential population mental health improvement strategy in the United States.”
The term “tree hugger” has been applied to people viewed as uber-liberal or too idealistic, however… “it has been recently scientifically validated that hugging trees is actually good for you.”
Research has shown that you don’t even have to touch a tree to get better, you just need to be within its vicinity has a beneficial effect.
In a recently published book, Blinded by Science, the author Matthew Silverstone, proves scientifically that trees do in fact improve many health issues such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), concentration levels, reaction times, depression and other forms of mental illness. He even points to research indicating a tree’s ability to alleviate headaches in humans seeking relief by communing with trees.
The author points to a number of studies that have shown that children show significant psychological and physiological improvement in terms of their health and well being when they interact with plants and trees. Specifically, the research indicates that children function better cognitively and emotionally in green environments and have more creative play in green areas. Also, he quotes a major public health report that investigated the association between green spaces and mental health concluded that “access to nature can significantly contribute to our mental capital and wellbeing”.
I”m sorry the article only looked at research in children, as more and more findings are showing the same improvements in adults from interacting and playing with nature, and even results that some would term “nature deprivation” or as Richard Louv calls it “Nature Deficit Disorder.”
One of my favorite little trivia facts is that there are microbes in soil that induce positive emotions in people, so digging in the dirt actually makes you happier. Plus helps you learn and concentrate more.
Hospital patients with a view of a tree or greenery from their room window were found to heal faster.
Those kinds of benefits are for everybody!
While I do feel like it’s important to make sure children get enough outdoor time, I continually want to drive home the message that not only should you encourage children to go outside and play, but adults too. We ALL need fresh air and nature and flowers and bugs and dirt.
Slovenia-based photographer Matej Peljhan recently teamed up with a 12-year-named Luka who suffers from muscular dystrophy, to create a wildly imaginative series of photos depicting the boy doing things he is simply unable to do because of his degenerative condition. While he can still use his fingers to drive a wheelchair and to draw, things like skateboarding and swimming are simply not possible.
Happy Friday! After a looooong work week, here’s a little more incentive to make sure you get some time to play this weekend.
[Okay, fine, for all of you who are too “busy” to read the article, here’s a basic breakdown: you need free play in order to recover from stress, and that if we don’t we’re basically setting ourselves up for early brain deterioration and death.
Now will you take a second to read the article?] 🙂
“A playful brain is a more adaptive brain,” writes ethologist Sergio Pellis in The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. In his studies, he found that play-deprived rats fared worse in stressful situations.
In our own world filled with challenges ranging from cyber-warfare to infrastructure failure, could self-directed play be the best way to prepare ourselves to face them?
In self-directed play, one structures and drives one’s own play. Self-directed play is experiential, voluntary, and guided by one’s curiosity. This is different from play that is guided by an adult or otherwise externally directed.
As I head off on my latest grand adventure (a road-trip across Washington State), I will be driving through some fairly pristine landscapes; prairies, desert, forests, river basins. I love experiencing natural environments, even if it’s only from my car window. I find it rejuvenating and relaxing, more than a 90-minute massage! And enough research is coming out these days that finds I am not alone in my need for green spaces. So these two articles that were recently published seemed very timely for me. I know a lot of people wonder, “what does saving trees have anything to do with play?” Well, in a word, LOTS!
From conception through early childhood, brain architecture is particularly malleable and influenced by environment and relationships with primary caregivers, including toxic stress caused by abuse or chronic neglect. By interfering with healthy brain development, such stress can undermine the cognitive skills and health of a child, leading to learning difficulty and behavior problems, as well as psychological and behavior problems, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments later in life.
A growing body of primarily correlative evidence suggests that, even in the densest urban neighborhoods, negative stress, obesity and other health problems are reduced and psychological and physical health improved when children and adults experience more nature in their everyday lives. These studies suggest that nearby nature can also stimulate learning abilities and reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and we know that therapies using gardening or animal companions do improve psychological health. We also know that parks with the richest biodiversity appear to have a positive impact on psychological well-being and social bonding among humans.
While we can’t say with certainty that these influences play a direct role in early brain development, it’s fair to suggest that the presence of nature can soften the blow of toxic stress in early childhood and throughout our lives. It’s understandable that researchers have yet to explore the natural world’s impact on brain development because the topic itself is rather new. Also, scientists have a hard time coming up with an agreed-upon definition of nature – or of life itself.
He’s right that we can directly link the two, but we do have research that demonstrates all of the following:
play is good for you
stress is bad for you
less stress = more play
more nature = less stress
more nature = more play
The environment you grow up in as a kid leads to permanent learned behaviors as an adult.
So there is a STROOOONG correlation to more exposure to nature as a kid leading to a less stressed, healthier, more playful brain.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there are now calls out to step up preserving natural forests, with some researchers claiming deforestation poses more of a threat to the planet’s health than global warming:
Bill Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, studied 60 protected areas in tropical regions around the world and is the lead author of an article that will be published in tomorrow’s issue of Nature.
Tropical forests are the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, and failing to maintain them may drive more species to extinction, he said. To serve as a sanctuary for wildlife, the areas must also be protected from nearby development and other activities in adjacent lands that will have impact on designated preserves.
Protecting nature is important for our own health, as well as our children and grandchildren. Remember to be thankful for nature this weekend, and maybe even give a tree a hug; it’s playful and gets you closer to nature, literally.
I am a HUGE fan of Jonah Lehrer and his exploration of science and psychology, so I was thrilled to see his new article in the New Yorker about how important it is for us to daydream (which is a big part of make-believe play).
Humans are a daydreaming species. According to a recent study led by the Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, people let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. (The scientists demonstrated this by developing an iPhone app that contacted twenty-two hundred and fifty volunteers at random intervals during the day.) In fact, the only activity during which we report that our minds are not constantly wandering is “love making.” We’re able to focus for that.
At first glance, such data seems like a confirmation of our inherent laziness. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. Freud, for instance, described daydreams as “infantile” and a means of escaping from the necessary chores of the world into fantasies of “wish-fulfillment.”
In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state, revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool. It turns out that whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.
We all need a chance to let our brains wander and make connections and just absorb and process what we’ve been experiencing. It’s a mental health issue as much as an intelligence issue in my book. There are lots of stories (not all of them 100% true, but still useful), of scientists struggling with a problem, going outside to take a break and daydream on it, and *BAM* problem suddenly solved!
Do you give yourself a chance to daydream? Have you had one of those “aha” moments due to daydreaming? Leave a note about your experiences in the comments below.
Exercise clears the mind. It gets the blood pumping and more oxygen is delivered to the brain. This is familiar territory, but Dartmouth’s David Bucci thinks there is much more going on.
“In the last several years there have been data suggesting that neurobiological changes are happening — [there are] very brain-specific mechanisms at work here,” says Bucci, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
From his studies, Bucci and his collaborators have revealed important new findings:
The effects of exercise are different on memory as well as on the brain, depending on whether the exerciser is an adolescent or an adult.
A gene has been identified which seems to mediate the degree to which exercise has a beneficial effect. This has implications for the potential use of exercise as an intervention for mental illness.
Happy Friday! I read this article in the New York Times about Dr. Liz Spelke, at Harvard University, who studies the neuroscience of babies.
Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet.
While the article primarily focused on what we can glean from babies about human cognition and knowledge, I couldn’t help but pick up on the author’s observations that the main thing the baby test subjects want to do, and the main thing that is enriching to them, is engage with the people around them (and how enriching it is for the grown-ups involved too):
The 15-pound research subject … tracked conversations, stared at newcomers and burned off adult corneas with the brilliance of her smile. Dr. Spelke, who first came to prominence by delineating how infants learn about objects, numbers, the lay of the land, shook her head in self-mocking astonishment.
“Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?” she said. “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”
Babies are born with a desire to learn and engage in their world. They are pretty helpless, and so the only thing they have to defend themselves, as well as learn, is to engage with others and beg for help. As soon as they figure out who’s safe, they look for more people like that:
But, babies are also fascinated with the unknown, and will stare at new concepts and objects for much longer than the known items and individuals.
To me the really interesting thing is that what most interests the baby subjects is getting to know the researchers. As grown-ups we don’t have to lose that sense of wonder. Many people grow up to be researchers (like Dr. Spelke). We can continue to be fascinated by our surroundings and new people and always seek knowledge about what’s around us.
P.S.: Also, just if you’re curious, according to the Spelke lab here are some of the things that babies know, generally before the age of 1:
They know what an object is. They know that objects can’t go through solid boundaries or occupy the same position as other objects, and that objects generally travel through space in a continuous trajectory.
Babies can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and less. They also can perform a kind of addition and subtraction, anticipating the relative abundance of groups of dots that are being pushed together or pulled apart.
Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures.