design · Mental · mental health · Nature

Serious New Funding for Innovative Research on Restorative Urban Nature

So many studies have found natural spaces to be beneficial for healing and mental health, so it is crucial as we become more urbanized to allow space for nature to sneak in.


According to the TKF Foundation, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of the global population now live in urban areas. To ensure people can live in dense environments packed with people, parks and open space are critical. Without those, people flee to the suburbs to get away and have access to more nature.

So to green cities, landscape architects and planners are now “comprehensively integrating ecology and nature into built environments using systems approaches, such as green infrastructure, low impact development, and urban landscape ecology.” The cost of these efforts is justified by “call outs of better air and water quality; reduced heat island effect; and reduced carbon emissions.” While those benefits are clearly very valuable to quantify, there has been a recent movement to quantify the human health and well-being benefits of all this urban green in “stress recovery, improved mental health, faster healing…

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behavior · brain · children · learning · robotics · Social

Are robots future playmates for kids?

Will this robot someday be a child's best friend? (Photo credit: glemak)

An article from LiveScience talks about recent studies that find kids can get along pretty well with robots as playmates:

As technology continues to improve, human-like robots will likely play an ever-increasing role in our lives: They may become tutors for children, caretakers for the elderly, office receptionists or even housemaids. Children will come of age with these androids, which naturally raises the question: What kind of relationships will kids build with personified robots?

Children will view humanoid robots as intelligent social and moral beings, allowing them to develop substantial and meaningful relationships with the machines, new research suggests.

Researchers analyzed the interactions between nearly 100 children and Robovie, a 3-foot-tall (0.9 meters) robot developed by the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Japan. In the study, two technicians controlled Robovie remotely from another room, leading the children to believe that the robot was autonomous. The researchers imparted humanlike behavior to the robot, such as having Robovie claim unfair treatment when he was told to go into the closet at the end of the interaction sessions.

After reading the LiveScience question is, is this a good idea? I know positive results have been found for kids with Autism, who are able to transfer skills practiced with robots on to other humans, but for healthy kids is this really as beneficial? The scientists don’t seem too concerned:

…the researchers think that the results have important implications for the design of future robots. If engineers design robots to simply obey orders, the master-servant relationship that children experience may trickle into their interactions with other humans. Is it then better to design robots with the ability to “push back” as Robovie did when he was instructed to go into the closet?

Shen said there is no easy answer to which design scheme is better.

“I don’t think children will treat robots as nonsocial beings, they will treat them as social actors and interact with them in social ways,” she said. “But we need more data and evidence to see how adults, as well as children, will develop relationships with these robots.”

What do you think? Is this a good idea? The elderly in Japan do seem to benefit from having robot pets. Could the same be true for kids?

behavior · education · happiness · health · Social

Non-Elimination Games Leads to More Physically Active Children, Researchers Say | MomsTeam

A typical game of tic tac toe English: Tic tac...
Non-competitive games also have benefits. Image via Wikipedia

Interesting article about the value of non-elimination games (the original author focused on “non-competitive” but there are many competitive games that don’t involve elimination):

A study presented in May 2008 established that the structuring of children’s games has a significant effect on energy expenditure.

A research team led by Karla Bruggeman and David Dzewaltowski, Ph.D., measured activity during both elimination- and non-elimination games, using accelerometers, in 29 children in grades four through six. Both normal weight and overweight children participated in the study, but were not separated for analysis.

In non-elimination games, kids accrued more overall physical activity due to not having to spend time on the sidelines as a result of elimination. They also accumulated significantly more moderate and vigorous physical activity than elimination games. Both sets of games were adopted from a children’s program devised by a nonprofit group that uses various pieces of equipment to facilitate non-competitive play; elimination games were modified from non-competitive versions.

Children were surveyed for self-efficacy, enjoyment, and peer victimization following both types of games. Results showed that enjoyment was somewhat higher following elimination games, although enjoyment scores were high in non-elimination games as well. There were no reports of peer victimization in either set of games, but were significant increases in self-efficacy after both sets.

“The games in this study were part of fun and enjoyable day camp,” Bruggeman said. “It is likely that a well organized and positive game experience increases a kid’s confidence regardless of elimination or non-elimination game conditions.”

Again, the article author was focusing on non-competitive sports, but really the evidence is looking at non-elimination sports. While I don’t find anything wrong with competitive sports, I know they’re not everybody’s cup of tea, and I think it’s great to emphasize the fact that you don’t need to be playing on a team sport or competing against others in order to gain the same benefits from play. And there are lots of non-competitive physical activities that kids can and do partake in: parkour, running, climbing, digging in the dirt, parachute play, biking… what else? Name your favorite non-competitive physical activity in the comments.

More free-range research!

Another reblogged good’n from Brandon Keim of Wired Science, discussing primatologist Pascal Gagneux’s argument that free-range research is WAY better for all primates involved, including humans:

“Gagneux, who is noted for both his comparisons of human and chimpanzee genetics and his critical bioethical analysis of chimp research, says it’s about time we studied chimpanzees humanely. He’d like to see forest-size chimp-research facilities that would allow scientists to continue studying our closest relative, while protecting the endangered species in something close to its natural habitat.

“Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. ‘Chimpanzees should be in sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives without any blood drawing or having their bodies studied after death,’ said Deborah Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. She is renowned for her work with Washoe, the first non-human primate to learn sign language. ‘Humans can volunteer to have their bodies used for science after death. Chimpanzees cannot.’

“Researchers also caution that captive research populations will never take the place of wild chimpanzees. ‘Chimps raised in captivity have no knowledge base about dealing with the natural environment,’ said Linda Brent, director of Chimp Haven, which houses chimpanzees retired from government research. The jungle is no longer their home, and won’t ever be again.”

Read full post.

Personally, I am with Gagneux. It is inhumane, inprimate, to keep chimpanzees in cages and indoors not letting them lead normal lives. Even if they wouldn’t know how to act in a wild jungle, they would certainly do better in a large enclosure with trees and things to play with. At the same time, many humans will never be comfortable with the Fouts’ idea (Both Deborah and her husband Roger) that chimps should never, ever, ever be used for any type of research ever again. It’s going to be a long time before people are willing to do that. BUT giving chimpanzees a nice, humane/primate place to live is a good start.

anthropology · children · play

Review: The Association for the Study of Play Conference

I am currently sitting in the airport on my way home from the 34th annual conference for The Association for the Study of Play (TASP), held in sunny Tempe, AZ.
I gave a presentation about how parkour is a form of grown-up freeform play, as opposed to soccer or working out at the gym. Freeform or “unstructured” play is something you see kids do all the time, but grown-ups generally stop doing it all together. Parkour does not, and instead encourages grown-ups to keep that kid spirit of finding play in every aspect of your environment, and seeing play as important as work or leisure.
But enough about me, onto the conference. Most of the conference was dominated by early childhood development researchers (0-5 years old), and how play is beneficial to them. Which is great, I’m all for it. However, that sort of meant that left the rest of us anthropologists, sociologists, pirmatologists, psychologists, older kid play specialists, and other researchers out on our own. We were heard, for sure, but the conference was truly dominated by them; there were only seven sessions out of 21 that didn’t feature early childhood studies (this count includes workshops and panels).
But all moaning aside, it was a great conference, for one thing because you didn’t have to explain why you were studying play, or why it was important/beneficial/worth studying/etc. I reluctantly stayed through Saturday for the session on the use of digital photography in play studies, and it was the best session of the whole event. Two of the women were doing exactly what I’d like to do as a study and research focus (namely giving people (kids) cameras as learning and research tools and see what they come up with). Unfortunately, neither of them good answer exactly what they were going to do with their research once it was done. Dr. Laurelle Phillips had expanded the use of cameras at her school to other classrooms, but the school was located on her university so they could afford to buy three cameras per classroom. Doctoral candidate Carol Borran wasn’t sure what she was going to do with her work other than get her thesis. I spent the majority of Saturday talking with her and Dr. Pat Broadhead, and they were wonderful, both encouraging me to take time off from my research studies but also pursue a doctoral degree in my area of study. Dr. Broadhead said I could be Professor of Playful Spaces, which I must admit does sound cool. Usually the whole reason to go to conferences is to network, and while I regret I really didn’t get into it until the very last day, I got to see some amazing research and speaking with those two women was wonderful; just to hear their attitude about things, to get an outsider’s view of American attitudes to policy and pushing back against “the man.”
There was a paper I wished I’d seen but was canceled, which was a study of portrayal of masculinity through MMA fighting.
I got some good sun, good experience presenting (I think this was the first time ever I wasn’t really nervous going up and presenting in front of a group. I almost wondered what was wrong with me), and some good brain stimulation. So all in all good stuff.
For now I will leave you with a meditative question from the chair of the conference, Dr. David Kuschner: “If there is a toy in the woods and there is no one to play with it, is it really a toy?”