behavior · children · cognition · education · emotion · mental health · play · Social

How Playing Superheroes Can Stop Bullying

red robot hero pose at windowEspecially with the increased output of Hollywood superhero movies these days, it can be easy to think of them as nothing more than shallow entertainment. However, the powerful storytelling and archetype of the superhero is something that appeals to many of us on a deeper level; it teaches us about standing up for those in need. My husband and I used this archetype recently with our own kids.

My elder son and daughter attend the same preschool, and unfortunately there was an increase in bullying behavior recently. This is developmentally typical for this age, and it also provides a good opportunity for learning how to deal with bullies in the “real world.” Kids have to learn how to respond to mean or bullying behavior, just like they need to learn how to say no when a friend wants to play house or play fight and they don’t (and don’t get me started on how adults need to learn the difference between bullying and roughhousing! That is for a later post). Kids who are not the target of bullying also need to learn how to respond when they see it. Often they will ignore it so as not to become a target themselves, or they will join in. It does not mean they are malicious kids, they are simply trying out behaviors they see.

But we asked our kids to go a step further, and not just ignore but try to help.

When we heard this was going on, we sat down with them and talked with them about why the behavior wasn’t okay, were they targets, were they participating, and did they feel safe. Then my husband told them, “You are both very strong, and I want you to try something; I want you to stand up to anyone you see picking on a kid in your class who may not feel strong, who is getting bullied. I want you to support them, even if they are not your best friend. Can you do that?”

My daughter nodded her head in understanding, but my son, who is only 3, wasn’t exactly sure what Dad meant. My husband tried to explain it again, but started getting more complicated in his wording, and I could see Keir’s eyes start to glaze over in confusion. But I realized my husband was describing something very familiar to our son.

“We want you to be a superhero,” I interjected. My son loves superheroes (and bad guys like Darth Vader, but it’s hard to have one without the other). His eyes lit up. My husband immediately caught on to where I was going.

“That’s right. Superheroes stand up to bad guys and bullies and protect their friends, even people who are not their friends,” he explained. “Even if nobody else is, in fact because nobody else is, they stand up for those who need help. Can you be like a superhero?”

green lantern duckie hero toyMy son seemed frankly a little shocked by the idea that HE, a little guy, could be a superhero in real life. But he also seemed willing to give it a try.

By reading stories and playing superhero (and bad guys), both my kids understood what it meant to stand up to bullying and supporting and defending your friends without even really “knowing” it . The hero archetype is a valuable one; through reading about it and playing one we learn to be brave for ourselves and others, and that sometimes we fight the battles nobody else wants to.

The next morning, I helped my kids bundle up against the cold morning, saying, “all right, let’s get our superhero outfits on.” As they trundled out the door to school with their dad, I called out, “good luck, little superheroes!” At pick-up that day, I asked the usual questions – what did you work on? Who did you sit with at lunch?

My daughter answered, “I asked [kid often being bullied] to play with me, and [kid who often bullies] to sit with me at lunch.”

I think she’s embodied being a compassionate superhero better than I have. But then, she and her brother play/practice being superheroes a lot.



architecture · children · cognition · design · education · environment · learning

Are Teachers Distracting Students With Bad Interior Design? | Co.Design | business + design

These findings make sense to me and yet also don’t.


Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Few environments feature such a cacophony of decor as the elementary school classroom. Colorful bulletin boards, scientific posters, state maps, and student artwork tend to cover nearly every inch of wall space. Yet a new study on classroom design from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that all that educational flair may not be all that great for getting kids to learn.

The study, carried out over two weeks, examined 24 kindergarten students who were taught six lessons on topics they had not yet learned in school. Half the lessons were taught in a highly decorated classroom environment, with posters and art all over the walls, and the other half were taught in a classroom with no decoration.

CMU’s researchers found the kids spent more time off-task and were more distracted when the room was brightly decorated, and they tested better on subjects they learned in the sparser classroom compared to the ones they learned in the more visually stimulating environment.

Elementary school children typically stay in one room all day, so classroom decorations don’t necessarily match the subject matter they’re learning at any given time. If they’re sitting in front of a U.S. map, they’ll be looking at that all day whether the current lesson is on geography or math. This study, though very small, adds to previous research from the same psychologists showing that visual stimulation that’s irrelevant to on-going instruction can distract kids.

more via Are Teachers Distracting Students With Bad Interior Design? | Co.Design | business + design.

The study doesn’t go on to offer any ways to necessarily improve the classroom design, although the article does give other links discussing it.

Nature can be fairly visually cacophonous, so what is it about classroom designs that are so distracting? I also wonder how much of their distraction is from an unnatural learning style, and then other more engaging things to look at. That is not an attack on the teacher, I’m just skeptical whether any human is capable of sitting in one room for 6-8 hours, with a couple of lunch breaks, and concentrate the entire time, for an extended period of time. Even grown-ups have a hard time doing that, and suffer when they try to sustain that for too long.

What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.

children · education · environment · learning

Middle school as enrichment

Middle School Field Hockey
What were your experiences in middle school? Image by North Shore Country Day School via Flickr

Recently, GOOD Magazine asked on Facebook and Twitter: What’s one thing you could learn from your middle school self?

This brought up several reactions for me. For one thing, I hated middle school. I was teased for being a smarty pants with the wrong clothes, scolded by my teachers for being too bossy, and became convinced I wasn’t good at Math. Later on, as I grew up and eventually made it out into the “real world,” I realized that I had a “classic” fashion sense, my “bossiness” came in handy when working with contractors and employees, and I was good at Math if I didn’t let my phobia get the best of me. Rather than learning a great deal about the world, I feel like I forgot a lot of important lessons during middle school. If anything, I wish there were things I could go back and tell my middle school me not to worry about, or worry more about them.
That is not the case for everyone, though. Some people had great experiences in middle school, and felt like they grew as individuals and started to become truly who they were meant to be. Middle school was enriching for them, a good experience.
And to be fair, middle school wasn’t all bad. Middle school is the place of first crushes, first dances, joining sports teams, finding your passion, breaking free from your parents a little bit, meeting new people, starting to be taken seriously adults, but still getting to be a kid and have time to play.
What are some of your lessons from middle school? Were they good, bad? How did those experiences enrich your life, or how did they make them worse? What is one thing or rule you learned in middle school that you wish you still followed, or what is one rule you wish you could forget?
behavior · brain

We are music-powered beings

It is amazing the power that music has on us. It can make us happy, cry, soothe depression, calm, enliven, and make us dance like idiots.

Babies are not immune to this, in fact there are some very famous dancing babies. Who can forget the kiddo dancing to Beyonce from a year ago?

Turns out this inclination to move and wiggle to music starts at an incredibly early age. NPR’s Science Friday showcased a study where babies where set up with headphones piping in very danceable beats. Infants would spontaneously start dancing to the beat. Sure, they weren’t all that great at it, but as the scientists point out, they’ve only been using their muscles for a few months here, so cut them some slack!

Click here to see the video

But I have never seen such a good demonstration of the power of music as with this little guy. Watch what happens right around 30 seconds and then again at 2:10.

children · education · learning

Developing minds

Lots of cool news came out recently about human development, from chimps to little humans:

Wild chimps have been shown to understand fire and how it moves, and don’t freak out like other animals do. This is exciting because humans so far had been the only animals documented as keeping their cool around fire…for the most part.

Since we’re in the jungle, it’s once again been show that it’s good for kids to go roll around in the dirt; for one thing it correlates with lower heart disease when they’re older.

But back to brain wiring, kids who get intensive language training when they’re young, like reading, actually have their brains re-wired, in a good way.

New education research is also showing that kids may understand Math at a much earlier age than previously though, and there are ways that they can learn the concepts just as early as we try to teach them language.

One of the skills kids can develop is compartmentalization, which it turns out cavemen could also do much earlier than previously thought; for example, they made different, compartmentalized work stations in their camps, rather than spread everything around and sleep right next to the meat-processing spot.

Speaking of stone-age types, a study has come out that counters the idea that hunter-gatherers didn’t eat any grains at all.

All this data almost makes me want to grab some popcorn and pop it over a fire while playing math games. But not before I go work in my garden patch.

children · gender · play

Effects of prenatal exposure of phthalates in boys

First came across this in Discover Magazine:

A new study in the International Journal of Andrology has raised a storm of concern that prenatal exposure to these chemicals could make boys less masculine in their play preferences.

Phthalates, which block the activity of male hormones such as androgens, could be altering masculine brain development, according to Shanna H. Swan, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and lead author of the new report [Los Angeles Times]. To test whether that link extended into behavior, Swan’s team tested women for phthalate levels midway through their pregnancy and then checked back in on the children four to seven years later.

The researchers asked parents to report their children’s patterns of play, but they knew they also had to separate any potential phthalate effect from the “nuture ” side of question. To determine how parental views might sway behavior, parents completed a survey that included questions such as, “What would you do if you had a boy who preferred toys that girls usually play with?” They were asked to respond with whether they would support or discourage such behavior, and how strongly [TIME].

The study of about 150 kids found that while girls were mostly unaffected, boys who had been exposed to the highest phthalate levels showed a lower likelihood than other boys to participate in what we consider typical rough-and-tumble male recreation—play fighting, pretending to play with guns, and so on. But the research might not imply the national masculinity crisis that some headlines suggest. Play in the most highly phthalate-exposed boys wasn’t “feminized,” Swan explains, since these kids didn’t preferentially play with dolls or don dresses. Rather, she says, “we’d describe their play as less masculine” [Science News]. Rather than play-fighting, she says, those boys tended toward “gender neutral” play like putting puzzles together or competing in sports.

Read full article here.


Babies cry in their own language

From Newsweek and several other magazines:

There had already been provocative research on what sounds a fetus can hear in the womb and what effect that has right after birth, with several research teams finding that newborns prefer their mothers’ voices over those of other people, as in studies such as this and this. That makes sense, since Mom’s voice is what a baby heard most for nine months. Newborns also prefer their native tongue to other languages for the same reason.

Now an intrepid team of scientists, three from Germany and one from France, has gone an intriguing step further: they have found that newborns cry in their native language. “We have provided evidence that language begins with the very first cry melodies,” says Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg, Germany, who led the research.

The idea was to extend the existing findings about what sounds babies can perceive—their native language, their mother’s voice—to test what sounds they can create. Once the researchers had their recordings (no babies were harmed in the course of this research! All crying was spontaneous, due to hunger or thirst or general unhappiness rather than pain, as from having blood drawn), they set to work analyzing the cries’ melodic qualities.

French babies tended to cry “with a rising melody contour,” they will report in the December issue of the journal Current Biology, posted online Thursday. The cries sounded French: the pitch changed from low to high, rising toward the end of words as well as phrases within a sentence (though the final sound of a sentence has a lower pitch). In contrast, the German babies’ cries had falling melodic contours. They sounded German: the pitch fell from high to low, which is consistent with the sound of German’s falling melody contour, from the accented high-pitch syllable at the start of a phrase or word to the lower pitch at the end of a phrase. A French child says “papa,” while a German one says “papa.” There is, in short, “a tendency for infants to utter melody contours similar to those perceived prenatally,” write the scientists.

“The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are [newborns] capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester,” said Wermke. “Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants’ crying for seeding language development.”

Read the full article at Newsweek

children · technology

Robot love

A baby monkey in the U.K. gets a stuffed surrogate mom with a mechanical heart while her mom recovers from a c-section, so the little DeBrazza baby can lie against the toy and be comforted by her “mom’s” heartbeat. Awwww…..

Teams in Italy and the U.K. are currently developing a robot kid. This robot has been programmed to learn how to crawl, walk, an move, using the leading theories today of child development. The best part, the schematics on how to make the kid are open access, meaning ANYONE who has serious robotics training could potentially make and teach this robot kid. They hope this will speed the development of the robot, including developing nerves and sensing skin for the kiddo. My favorite part in the film clip (see link), is when the robot gets “falls asleep.”

children · play · psychology

NY mom lets kid ride subway, gets socially whipped

I did not know about this until the article in Newsweek came out, but apparently a woman let her 4th grader ride the subway alone to go home early from a shopping trip. I say good for her. Kids today are too protected, coddled, and not trusted to be responsible human beings. She even created her own blog, Free Range Kids. I hope this trend continues, with books like A Nation of Wimps and most modern psychologists promoting independence in children rather than protecting, it’s time that America regained its independent, rugged streak and grew up a little bit!

children · education · play

Some links to get your brain churning in the new year

First is an interesting blog I stumbled upon, and it may become part of my list:

Next is an article that by itself isn’t so wow-zowy, but the fact that they are addressing the issue of just how important movement is to children’s development is wonderful.

Finally, I stumbled upon this program whose soul purpose is to get teachers to use puppets more in their teaching arsenal. Too cool!