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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2015


Let our resolution be this: we will be there for one another as fellow members of humanity, in the finest sense of the word.
- Goran Persson

Children Who Take ADHD Medicines Have Trouble Sleeping, New Study Shows

From the University of Nebraska - Lincoln
via ScienceDaily

By Leslie Reed
November 23, 2015

Children given ADHD stimulant medications take significantly longer to fall asleep, have poorer quality sleep and sleep for shorter periods, shows new research.



Stimulant medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) cause sleep problems among the children who take them, a new study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln concludes.

The study addresses decades of conflicting opinions and evidence about the medications' effect on sleep.

In what's known as a "meta-analysis," researchers from the UNL Department of Psychology combined and analyzed the results from past studies of how ADHD medications affect sleep.

In a study published online by the journal Pediatrics, the Nebraska researchers found children given the medicines take significantly longer to fall asleep, have poorer quality sleep, and sleep for shorter periods.

"We would recommend that pediatricians frequently monitor children with ADHD who are prescribed stimulants for potential adverse effects on sleep," said Katie Kidwell, a psychology doctoral student who served as the study's lead author.

About 1 in 14 children and adolescents in the U.S. are diagnosed with ADHD, a chronic condition that includes attention difficulty, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. In the most common form of ADHD treatment, about 3.5 million are prescribed stimulant medications such as Ritalin and Adderall.

Many research articles have been written in the past 30 years on whether ADHD medications harm the ability to sleep. Some researchers have found that the drugs do interfere with sleep, particularly if taken later in the day. Others maintain the medications improve patients with ADHD's ability to sleep, by relieving symptoms and reducing resistance to bedtime. Indeed, some suggest that sleep problems are caused by the medication wearing off near bedtime, creating withdrawal symptoms.

"One reason we did the study is that researchers have hypothesized different effects, and there are some conflicting findings in the literature," said Timothy Nelson, an associate professor of psychology involved in the study. "This is when a meta-analysis is most useful. By aggregating and previous research in a rigorous and statistical way, we can identify the main findings that we see across all these studies. It's essentially a study of studies."

After screening nearly 10,000 articles, Kidwell and her colleagues reviewed 167 full texts before selecting nine studies of sufficient rigor for their analysis. Tori Van Dyk and Alyssa Lundahl, also psychology doctoral students, assisted in the effort.

Studies chosen for the analysis were peer-reviewed, randomized experiments. The studies did not rely on parental reports of their children's sleeping patterns, instead requiring objective measures obtained through clinical sleep studies or wristband monitors used at home.

The researchers found that both methylphenidate medications like Ritalin and amphetamines like Adderall cause sleep problems, without identifying differences between the two. Although they were unable to determine whether varying dosage amounts changed the effect on sleep, they found that more frequent dosages made it harder for children to fall asleep.

They found that drugs tend to cause more sleep problems for boys. The problems dissipate, but never completely go away, the longer children continue to take the medication.


"Sleep impairment is related to many cognitive, emotional and behavioral consequences, such as inattention, irritability and defiance," Kidwell said. "Sleep adverse effects could undermine the benefits of stimulant medications in some cases. Pediatricians should carefully consider dosage amounts, standard versus extended release, and dosage frequencies to minimize sleep problems while effectively treating ADHD symptoms."

She also recommended considering behavioral treatments, such as parental training and changes to classroom procedures and homework assignments, to reduce ADHD's negative consequences.

"We're not saying don't use stimulant medications to treat ADHD," Nelson said. "They are well tolerated in general and there is evidence for their effectiveness. But physicians need to weigh the pros and cons in any medication decision, and considering the potential for disrupted sleep should be part of that cost-benefit analysis with stimulants."

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Parents Wonder: Why So Much Homework?

From KQED's Blog "Mind/Shift"
How we will learn.

By Katrina Schwartz
November 16, 2012

“The teachers have my kids for seven hours a day and when my kids get home I like for them to be able to do something else.”



As the movement against excessive homework continues to grow, some parents say they’re drawing a line in the sand between home and school. Schools, in turn, are starting to rethink the role of homework and how it should be assigned.

If homework serves simply as busy work — proof that kids are “learning,” then that time is wasted, some say. Parents are sensitive to pressures on their children and want them to have down time when they get home from seven hours in school.


If the work isn’t stimulating, then why do it?

“I just think that schools need to be a little more thoughtful about their policies for homework and work with the teachers to make sure that whatever homework that they do assign are rich, valuable experiences for the kids, and will actually be corrected,” said Jolene Ivey, mother of five boys in a discussion on NPR’s Tell Me More.

“We’re teaching to the test, so a lot of the instruction that should be going on in the school environment is not there,” said Stephen Jones, an educator and a father. “Giving homework gives them an additional opportunity to give them work.”

He doesn’t necessarily think that’s the worst thing, but he said homework should allow different learning styles to flourish so that it’s both more motivating and more fun for kids when they are at home.

Proponents of homework say that the ability to buckle down and focus on homework after a long day is a key skill that young people will need in college and beyond. If high schools don’t assign enough homework, graduates will be unprepared when they confront heavy work loads in college.

But Kenneth Goldberg, psychologist and author of The Homework Trap,” argues that success in college is due more to self-confidence. He argues that homework highlights “under the radar” learning disabilities in children that make it much harder for some to finish work at home.

One of his children struggles with homework on a nightly basis, leading Goldberg to conclude that homework batters the struggling child with negativity, challenging his self-confidence instead of nurturing it.

Goldberg has a few simple solutions to offer parents and teachers about how to avoid the homework trap and increase productivity. He promotes the idea of designating specific amounts of time to homework, regardless of whether the project gets done and then discussing a different set of expectations with the school.

He points them out in a Wall Street Journal article:

1.) Time-bound homework. Just like school starts and stops by the clock, define homework as a fixed period of time. See what the child can do in a reasonable amount of time and work with that child on using the time well.

2.) Reduced penalties. Zeros factored in 25 percent of the grade is too harsh of a penalty to alter behavior. Lesser consequences will prove more effective in both mobilizing the child and allowing the parent to approach the issue calmly.

3.) Respect lines of authority. Teachers are in charge of their classrooms. Parents should tread lightly when it comes to telling them what to do. Parents are the people in charge of their homes; teachers should not tell parents how to organize their homes. Ultimately, when decisions are to be made about behaviors in the home (i.e. homework), the parent needs to be the one with the final say.

“Teachers should recognize that parents are the head of the home, teachers are the head of the classroom, and that homework is given with the permission of the parents,” Goldberg said.

For parents like Ivey, who want their kids to succeed in school, the homework conundrum has become inescapable.

“Homework is such a miserable experience in my life,” Ivey said. “The teachers have my kids for seven hours a day and when my kids get home I like for them to be able to do something else.”

Childhood Concussions Impair Brain Function

From the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
via ScienceDaily

By Sarah Banducci
December 18, 2015

Summary: Pre-adolescent children who have sustained sports-related concussions have impaired brain function two years following injury, new research indicates. Over a million brain injuries are treated annually in the U.S. While organized sports at all levels have implemented safety protocols for preventing and treating head injuries, most pediatric concussions still result from athletic activities.


A new study finds that pre-adolescent children who have sustained sports-related concussions have impaired brain function two years following injury.

The results are published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.

Over a million brain injuries are treated annually in the U.S. While organized sports at all levels have implemented safety protocols for preventing and treating head injuries, most pediatric concussions still result from athletic activities.

What we know about long-term effects of childhood concussions is limited. Several researchers claim that only a small portion of children have developmental deficits following a concussion. However, other reports indicate much more dire consequences of head injury, including long-term cognitive deficits.

"Our data indicate that children who sustain a concussion demonstrate deficits in brain function and cognitive performance approximately two years after injury, relative to others their age who do not have a history of mild traumatic brain injury," said Charles Hillman, University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor.

Hillman, who also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, led the research with R. Davis Moore, a recent Illinois graduate and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Montreal.

The study included 30 8-to 10-year-old children who are active in athletic activities. Fifteen of the children were recruited two years following a sports-related concussion and the remaining children had no history of concussion.

The researchers assessed the children's ability to update and maintain memory, as well as pay attention and inhibit responses when instructed to do so. The team also analyzed electrical signals in the brain while the children performed some of these cognitive tests. With the brain signals, they were able to measure how each child's brain performed the tests.

Relative to children in the control group, those with a history of concussion performed worse on tests of working memory, attention and impulse control. This impaired performance was also reflected in differences in the electric signals in the injured children's brains. Also, among the children with a history of concussion, those who were injured earlier in life had the largest deficits, Moore said.

The researchers emphasize the potential for lifelong academic and vocational consequences for kids who sustain concussions early in life, Moore said.

"These data are an important first step toward understanding sustained changes in brain function and cognition that occur following childhood concussion," Hillman said. "Our study suggests the need to find ways to improve cognitive and brain health following a head injury, in an effort to improve lifelong brain health and effective functioning."

Journal Reference

Davis R. Moore, Dominika M. Pindus, Lauren B. Raine, Eric S. Drollette, Mark R. Scudder, Dave Ellemberg, Charles H. Hillman. The persistent influence of concussion on attention, executive control and neuroelectric function in preadolescent children. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 2015; DOI:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.11.010

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Skepticism about Study Linking Antidepressants and Autism

From Forbes Magazine's
Pharma & Healthcare Blog 

By Steven Salzberg
December 21, 2015

Over-hyped, overstated and probably just wrong.


That’s my summary of the latest high-profile study of autism, which reports that mothers who take antidepressants increase the risk of autism in their unborn children by up to 87%. The new study, which appeared this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, received widespread attention, both uncritical (Washington Post, Huffington Post) and more cautious (CBS News).

But it was that 87% increase that caught most people’s attention.

Many scientists, including me, read this news with skepticism. It seems particularly unlikely given that exactly two years ago, another large study reported exactly the opposite conclusion. The 2013 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that antidepressant use during pregnancy was NOT associated with an increased risk of autism.

What’s more, the 2013 study looked at exactly the same class of antidepressants, selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), as the new study.

So what’s going on? Was the 2013 study just wrong? It seemed the only way to answer this was to read the new study, written by Anick Bérard and colleagues.

Looking over the new numbers, my conclusion is that Bérard simply tortured the data until she got the results–and the press headlines–that they wanted. Let’s look a bit more closely.

Bérard and colleagues looked at 145,456 children born in Quebec between 1998 and 2009. From this total, 4,724 were born to mothers who took antidepressants (SSRIs) at some time during their pregnancy. The number of children diagnosed with autism was 1,054, about 0.7% of all babies. Only 46 of the 1,054 were born to mothers who had taken antidepressants.

The study’s main results concerns mothers who took antidepressants in the second or third trimester: these women accounted for 2,532 infants, of whom 31 were diagnosed with autism.

If these numbers seem confusing, try focusing on just one number: 31. The study’s main conclusion–and all the headlines–are based on those 31 children diagnosed with autism whose mothers took antidepressants in their second or third trimesters.

The key results are found in Table 2 of the study. Out of 9,207 infants whose mothers took antidepressants one year before getting pregnant, 82 were later diagnosed with autism. Bérard et al. found that, after adjusting for various confounders, this group of infants had no increased risk of autism.

Another group was infants whose mothers took antidepressants, in the first trimester: of these 4,200 infants, 40 were diagnosed with autism. Bérard et al. computed that the adjusted risk for this group was 16% lower than average. This difference was not statistically significant, though.

Finally, there’s the third group of 2,532 children whose mothers took antidepressants during the 2nd or 3rd trimesters. 31 of these children were later diagnosed with autism, which worked out to an increase in relative risk of 87%.

The first thing to note here is that the increase is relative, not absolute. The overall risk of autism in this study, which was consistent with other studies, was 0.7%. An 87% increase works out to a risk of 1.3% – that’s an increase of 0.6% in the rate of autism. This doesn’t sound nearly so dramatic as 87%.

But keep in mind that this supposed increased risk of autism is based on just 31 cases. Digging a bit deeper, we find that the way these 31 children were diagnosed was not so clear: the authors wrote that,

"Autism spectrum disorder was defined as a medical service claim or hospitalization with a diagnosis of ASD."

Apparently this means only that the children were evaluated for autism, as Dr. Alison Stuebe at the Huffington Post pointed out. Bérard et al. admit this in their paper, where they report that when they restricted their analysis to children whose diagnoses were confirmed by a psychiatrist or neurologist, the number of children with autism was smaller and the increased risk was not statistically significant.

In other words, if they looked only at children with confirmed autism, their main conclusion would fade away.

You also might have noticed that Bérard divided the data up in multiple ways to look for an increase in autism: they looked at mothers who took antidepressants before getting pregnant, during the first trimester, and during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters. They don’t report any findings for the 2nd trimester alone, or for the 3rd trimester alone, which would have certainly involved smaller (and probably less significant) numbers.

This raises a potentially fatal problem with the study: multiple testing. Whenever a study considers more than one hypothesis, the statistics must be adjusted to account for that. If you look for an effect in ten different ways, you’re more likely to find something by chance alone, so you have to find a much stronger effect in order for it to be valid. (The web comic xkcd has a great explanation of this.)

Bérard doesn’t explain how many hypotheses she tested, but she does write that:

"No adjustment was made for multiple comparisons; hence, we cannot rule out chance findings given the number of comparisons made."

No kidding! Upon reading this, my main question was how the journal editors let them get away with this. I guess JAMA‘s editors like headlines, perhaps a bit too much.

The senior author of the study, Anick Bérard, appears to have an agenda, as Slate’s David Auerbach explained. Last year, she testified in a lawsuit against Pfizer, claiming that their antidepressant Zoloft caused birth defects. The judge in that case, Cynthia Rufe, threw out Bérard’s testimony with the explanation that her methods were unscientific:

"Dr. Bérard’s opinions regarding Zoloft are only made possible by her departure from well-established epidemiological methods."

Now, the fact that Bérard has previously testified in court cases doesn’t prove that her current study is flawed, but it does indicate that she has a bias against antidepressants. This bias might explain why her study looked so hard to find an effect when the data don’t seem to support it.

Finally, I should note that even if the new study is correct (and I doubt it), it completely ignores the risk of stopping medication for pregnant women with severe depression, as Dr. Alison Stuebe discussed at length at the Huffington Post. (Recall that the 2013 study I mentioned above found that there was no increased risk of autism in women taking SSRIs.)

No woman should go off her medication based on this study, although I fear that the headlines from last week will have exactly that effect.

..................................................................
Steven Salzberg is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University.

Divorce Rate Doesn't Go Up as Families of Children with Disabilities Grow

From the University of Wisconsin-Madison
via ScienceDaily

By Adityarup Chakravorty
October 30, 2015

Couples raising a child with developmental disabilities do not face a higher risk of divorce if they have larger families, according to a new study by researchers from the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The study, published in the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, also compares divorce rates of couples who have at least one child with a developmental disability to that of their peers who have typically developing children.

Researchers found that among couples with children without any disabilities, the risk of divorce was lowest for couples with one child and increased with each successive child. In contrast, the risk of divorce for parents of children with developmental disabilities remained unchanged with increasing family size.

Parenting a child with a developmental disability involves challenges and rewards that are unique to each family, and prior research has shown that parents of a child with a developmental disability tend to experience greater marital stress compared to peers raising typically developing children.

As a result, there has been "a conception that, in general, parents of children with disabilities are more likely to experience divorce, and we wanted to test that assumption," says Eun Ha Namkung, first author of the paper and a graduate student in social work at the Waisman Center's Lifespan Family Research Program, led by study co-authors Jan Greenberg and Marsha Mailick.

Previous research has proven inconclusive.

In the study, the researchers found that couples with typically-developing children who can pitch in to care for and support their siblings with developmental disabilities may experience less marital stress, which can help counterbalance the effects of family size on divorce rates found in the general population.

"Our results clearly show that the effects of having additional children are different for families of individuals with developmental disabilities compared to the effects on the general population," says Namkung, "and suggest that other children in the family may be a vital support system for parents coping with the care of a child with a developmental disability."

About 22 percent of parents with a child with a developmental disability experienced divorce over the span of the study. Of parents in the comparison group, 20 percent experienced divorce, which is not a significant difference.

Namkung and co-authors, including fellow Waisman researcher Jieun Song, used the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) for their research. The WLS has been following more than 10,000 men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and some of their siblings for more than 50 years, yielding a rich and, more importantly, truly random sample.

"When the WLS began, the participants were still in high school," says Namkung, "whereas most past research recruited parents after they have given birth to a child diagnosed with developmental disabilities."

Using the WLS allowed the researchers to follow 190 parents whose children had a broad range of developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and unspecified intellectual disabilities.

The almost six-decade span of the WLS also allowed researchers to track families from the beginning of their marriages until they were in their early-to-mid sixties. Looking at marriages over a longer time period is important because the challenges of caring for a child with a developmental disability can vary tremendously over the lifespan.

While using the WLS provided many research advantages, Namkung does point out some potential shortcomings. The study population was mostly of Caucasian origin, which meant very little ethnic diversity. Participants were also mostly born between 1930 and 1935 and it is possible that examining younger generations would yield different divorce rates.

These are research questions that Namkung and her colleagues intend to pursue in the future. They also plan to "focus on other types of disabilities such as mental illness to better understand the effects of having a child with a particular disability on divorce rates," says Namkung.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Evidence that Brain-Chemical Imbalance Drives Autism Symptoms

From Autism Speaks Science News

December 17, 2015

Study links autism symptoms to disregulated levels of neurotransmitter GABA; flags potential avenue for developing treatments.


Imbalances in inhibitory GABA brain cell receptor activity (left) have been
implicated in autism. A new study looks more closely at GABA brain activity
and autism-related difficulties with screening out distracting images. The
findings suggests a promising direction for future medicines.
Illustration courtesy SAGE Therapeutics.

For the first time, researchers have documented a direct link between the severity of someone’s autism symptoms and brain levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid. The findings advance hope for treatments that ease autism symptoms by enhancing the action of GABA – the brain’s primary “calming,” or inhibitory, neurotransmitter.

The study appears in the journal Current Biology.

“Often, people with autism have trouble filtering irrelevant sensory information, and it’s long been thought this might have something to do with inhibition in the brain,” says study leader Caroline Robertson, a researcher with the Harvard Society of Fellows, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nearly a decade of basic research has suggested that reduced GABA activity in the brain plays a role in producing autism’s hallmark symptoms. But most of this research involved laboratory animals and genetic studies. The new study is the first to test the idea that GABA underlies autistic symptoms in people.

The researchers enrolled 41 participants – 21 of whom were mildly to severely affected by autism. The others were unaffected by the condition.

The participants performed a task that involves inhibition in the brain. They looked through binocular lenses that showed a different image to each eye. Typically, the brain switches between focusing on one or the other of the two images. This requires the brain to “inhibit,” or suppress one image.

The 21 participants with autism were slower to discern the two images than were the participants unaffected by the condition. This reflected their ability to suppress the competing image. It’s also consistent with previous research showing that many people with autism struggle with tasks that require blocking out distracting sights, sounds or other sensory input.

What’s more, their performance scores directly reflected the severity of their autism symptoms.

Next, the researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure GABA levels in each participant’s brain. Among the participants unaffected by autism, the ability to suppress the competing image during the perception test increased in direct proportion to GABA levels in their brains. By contrast, GABA levels showed no relationship to test performance among the participants affected by autism.

“This shows that the link between GABA and the ability to suppress competing images is completely absent in autism,” Dr. Robertson says. “It also suggest a disruption in inhibitory signaling in the autistic brain.”

Dr. Robertson and her team call for further research advancing the idea that increasing GABA signaling in the brain – perhaps through medication – could ease symptoms in people disabled by the condition.

“We want to see more research bridging the gap between animal and human research on autistic neurobiology, with the aim of developing new medications to ease symptoms in people disabled by the condition,” she said.


........................................................

The study was supported by a Milton Fund grant from Harvard University, a Seed Grant from the Simons Center for the Social Brain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MIT-Mass General Hospital Grand Challenge Award.

Helping Childrean at High Risk for Aggressive Behavior Found to Have Long-Term Benefits

From the Society for Research in Child Development
via ScienceDaily

December 16, 2015

A new longitudinal study that examined an intervention for children at high risk of developing behavior problems has found that teaching so-called soft skills was key to preventing criminal and delinquent problems later in life.


Soft skills, such as self-control and social skills, are personality traits, attitudes, and motivations not included in traditional measures of intelligence.

The study was conducted at Duke University and appears in the journal Child Development.

Researchers looked at Fast Track, an intervention developed in the 1990s for children identified by their teachers and parents to be at high risk of developing serious aggressive behavioral problems.

"Fast Track's focus on teaching children how to control their emotions, solve problems, and respond to social situations was integral for preventing later crime and delinquency," notes Kenneth Dodge, William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, who was one of the study's authors.

"Academic tutoring proved less valuable in the long term, except for slightly reducing students' mental health problems in adolescence."

Fast Track was introduced in Durham, NC, Nashville, TN, rural Pennsylvania, and Seattle, WA. Researchers screened 9,495 children, identifying those who scored highest in behavioral problems as reported by teachers and parents. Of these, 445 children were randomly assigned to the intervention and 446 were randomly assigned to a control group.

About half the children were African American and almost 70 percent were male; the children came from primarily disadvantaged families (almost 60 percent lived in single-parent households and almost 30 percent had parents with less than a high school education).

In elementary school, the intervention featured a teacher-led curriculum aimed at helping children develop emotional concepts, social understanding, and self-control; parent training groups designed to promote positive family-school relationships and teach parents behavior-management skills; and home visits to help parents solve problems and manage situations at home.

The program also featured social skill training groups for children and reading tutoring for children, and it paired children with peers to enhance their friendships in the classroom. When the children were adolescents, the intervention included curriculum-based parent and youth group meetings as well as individualized services for youth and their families.

Researchers measured children's academic, self-control, and social skills during elementary school (ages 6 to 11), as well as arrests, delinquency, and use of mental health services during adolescence and young adulthood (ages 12 to 20). This approach allowed the researchers to determine the effect of participating in Fast Track on outcomes in young adulthood and to pinpoint how important the types of skills learned during the intervention were for driving these long-term benefits.

Specific nonacademic capabilities (such as social skills and self-control) that children learned from ages 6 to 11 accounted for about a third of the program's ultimate effect in reducing juvenile arrests and more than half of the effect in reducing acts of delinquency, the study found.

Training in self-control was relatively more effective in the long term for very high-risk children, while learning social skills was more effective for mid-risk children. (Risk levels were defined by parents' and teachers' reports of children's behavior problems in kindergarten, prior to the intervention.)

"Our findings are particularly important, given that the United States has the world's highest incarceration rate and the highest per-capita health-care expenditures," says Lucy Sorensen, a doctoral student at Duke, who led the study. "Our study suggests that programs emphasizing the early development of interpersonal and self-control skills are one way to reduce such adverse outcomes."

"As practitioners and researchers decide whether to replicate interventions such as Fast Track, our findings shine light on which kinds and components of interventions may hold the greatest long-term value for preventing problematic outcomes that are costly both to individuals and society," Sorensen adds.

Journal Reference

Lucy C. Sorensen, Kenneth A. Dodge. How Does the Fast Track Intervention Prevent Adverse Outcomes in Young Adulthood? Child Development, 2015; DOI:10.1111/cdev.12467

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Social Stress: Brain Circuitry Fails to Connect in Children with Autism

From Carnegie Mellon University
via ScienceDaily

By Shilo Rea
December 15, 2015

Summary: The holidays can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly because of new or different social situations. One reason scientists believe ASD causes impairment in social interactions is due to an inability to effectively infer other's thoughts and feelings through 'theory of mind,' or ToM -- the ability to understand the mental states of others and oneself.

An innovative brain imaging study has uncovered new evidence explaining why ToM deficiencies are present in ASD children.


The holidays can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly because of new or different social situations. One reason scientists believe ASD causes impairment in social interactions is due to an inability to effectively infer other's thoughts and feelings through "theory of mind," or ToM -- the ability to understand the mental states of others and oneself.

An innovative brain imaging study has uncovered new evidence explaining why ToM deficiencies are present in ASD children. Published in Molecular Autism, the research reveals disruptions in the brain's circuitry involved in ToM at multiple levels compared to typical brain functioning.

The findings provide valuable insight into understanding the functional makeup of a vital neural network that is critical for characterizing the social symptoms in individuals with ASD.

"Reduced brain activity in ToM-related brain regions and reduced connectivity among these regions in children with autism suggest how deficits in the neurobiological mechanisms can lead to difficulties in cognitive and behavioral functioning, such as theory of mind," said Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

"Weaker coordination and communication among core brain areas during social thinking tasks in autism provides evidence for how different brain areas struggle to work together as a team."

The study used an approach first developed by Fulvia Castelli and her colleagues in the U.K. that created animation videos depicting two geometric shapes moving around the screen. The shapes, such as a large red triangle and a small blue triangle, moved in ways that could be seen as an interaction between them, such as coaxing or dancing. The team demonstrated that "seeing" the interactions was in the mind of the beholder, or to be more specific, in the ToM circuitry of the viewer's brain. Without ToM, it tended to look like geometric shapes moving around.

To investigate the neural mechanisms involved with ToM, the Carnegie Mellon-led research team asked 13 high-functioning children with ASD between the ages of 10 and 16 and 13 similarly aged children without ASD to watch these short animated films. The children were asked to identify the thoughts and feelings, or mental states, of those triangles while having their brains scanned by an fMRI scanner.

The children with ASD showed significantly reduced activation compared to the neurotypical children in the brain regions considered to be part of the ToM network, such as the medial frontal cortex and temporo-parietal junction. Furthermore, the synchronization between such pairs of regions was lower in the autism group.

The results support Just's 2004 influential "Frontal-Posterior Underconnectivity Theory of Autism," which first discovered this lower synchronization. In later studies, Just has demonstrated how this theory accounted for many brain imaging and behavioral findings in tasks that required a substantial role for the frontal cortex.

"One reason this finding is so interesting is that the 'actors' in the films have no faces, facial expressions or body posture on which to base a judgment of an emotion or attitude," said Rajesh Kana, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"The neurotypical children managed to identify a social interaction without social cues, such as interpreting the large triangle nudging the smaller one as a parent's attempt to encourage a child, but the ASD children were unable to make the connection."

To date, most research investigating the connectivity among core brain regions in ASD has focused on adults, limiting knowledge about how the disorder affects younger individuals.

"By studying children, we were able to show that it is possible to characterize the altered brain circuitry earlier in development, which could lead to designing earlier effective intervention programs that could train children to infer the intentions and thoughts that underlie physical interactions between people," Just said. "For example, children could be trained to distinguish between a helpful nudge and a hostile poke."

Journal Reference

Rajesh K. Kana, Jose O. Maximo, Diane L. Williams, Timothy A. Keller, Sarah E. Schipul, Vladimir L. Cherkassky, Nancy J. Minshew, Marcel Adam Just. Aberrant functioning of the theory-of-mind network in children and adolescents with autism. Molecular Autism, 2015; 6 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s13229-015-0052-x

How Rich Kids Get a Head Start

From TIME Magazine

By Rana Foroohar
December 18, 2015

Your parents' property wealth can determine your lot in life.



Back in 2011, I wrote a TIME cover story on declining social mobility and growing inequality in the United States. The title: “Can You Still Move Up in America?.”


My answer back then: “not as easily as in the past.” For some time now, we’ve seen rising inequality in the U.S. And as a result, social mobility has been declining, particularly respective to many of our peer nations.

Today, new Pew Research Center data on the differences in how rich and poor families raise their children has only solidified my view that we’re becoming a two-tier society — one in which who you become depends heavily on who your parents are.

Pew’s survey found that rich parents tend to coddle their kids, creating busy after-school schedules full of soccer games and violin lessons. Working-class kids, however, are left much more to their own devices, given fewer resources and less stroking.

According to Pew, that makes them more independent and closer to their parents. Yet it doesn’t help working-class youths climb the socioeconomic ladder. Once they hit their working years, they struggle just as their parents did.

Inequality and a lack of social mobility isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s always been the norm. In the wonderful 2014 book The Son Also Rises,” University of California academic Gregory Clark shows that birth has accounted for about 50% of people’s success in life across nearly every country and time period.

On top of that, Clark found that it takes 10 generations or more for inherited upward mobility to wear off. Even in the U.S., we’re more like the inhabitants of Downton Abbey than we would like to admit.

Why is this? Much of it has to do with education, including better schooling for rich children but also those after-school resources cited by Pew. But there’s a larger factor driving this, too: real estate. Rich kids are more likely to inherit property wealth from their parents, increasingly the fastest way up the economic ladder.

Academics like Thomas Piketty have written at length about real estate’s importance in building socioeconomic oligopolies. More recently, former British financial regulator Adair Turner has made a strong case for real estate as the single biggest driving factor in our two-tier economy.

“There is something about a modern economy that is extremely real estate intensive,” Turner, author of “Between Debt and the Devil,” told me in a recent interview. “Living in a ‘nice’ location is a high-income want, as is good education and healthcare.”

These desires are what economists call “elastic” wants. They are constantly in demand, and in lieu of proper price control, their cost can and will spiral almost infinitely (unlike, say, the price of a pair of jeans, shoes, or even a car, which is somewhat bounded).

Just as rising education costs make it harder for the poor to climb the socioeconomic ladder, so too do higher real estate prices. Banks aren’t willing to extend credit to those who can’t put down 30% cash on a new home, but rising rents are making it tougher for people to save. That’s making it harder, if not impossible, for working-class (and even some middle-class) families to buy a home. As an increasing share of global wealth is held in housing, those who lack real estate fall are left behind.

What’s the solution? The price inflation of elastic economic goods like healthcare, housing, and education need to be constrained by smarter policies involving both the public and the private sector. In the case of real estate, some are calling for privatizing Fannie and Freddie Mac, which still underwrite about 90% of the U.S. mortgage market. But that would do nothing to fix the problem.

Instead, it would create a more divisive property market, since private companies would have no impetus to create any kind of affordable housing.

The quickest fix would be tax reform that focuses on rewarding people for equity rather than debt. That means getting rid of mortgage interest deductions that allow people to buy McMansions (and create asset price inflation that fuels the cycle of inequality I have outlined above).

When only the rich can afford property, and property makes up an increasing amount of global wealth, and a larger percentage of that wealth is kept in the family, then you really do have the makings of a new Gilded Era.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Play Deficit

Froom Aeon Magazine

By Peter Gray
December 21, 2015

Children today are cossetted and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play they will never grow up.


When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education.

We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us.

What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it.

For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play, and the same is true in many other countries. In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time.


But then, beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised.

There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s.

Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others.

A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.

In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

Irecently took part in a radio debate with a woman representing an organisation called the National Center on Time and Learning, which campaigns for a longer school day and school year for schoolchildren in the U.S. (a recording of the debate can be found here).

Her thesis — consistent with her organisation’s purpose and the urgings of President Barack Obama and the Education Secretary Arne Duncan — was that children need more time in school than currently required, to prepare them for today’s and tomorrow’s competitive world. I argued the opposite. The host introduced the debate with the words: ‘Do students need more time to learn, or do students need more time to play?’

Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary.

But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.

I’m an evolutionary psychologist, which means I’m interested in human nature, its relationship to the nature of other animals, and how that nature was shaped by natural selection. My special interest is play.

The young of all mammals play. Why? Why do they waste energy and risk life and limb playing, when they could just rest, tucked away safely in a burrow somewhere? That’s the kind of question that evolutionary psychologists ask. The first person to address that particular question from a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective was the German philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos. In a book called The Play of Animals (1898), Groos argued that play came about by natural selection as a means to ensure that animals would practise the skills they need in order to survive and reproduce.

This so-called ‘practice theory of play’ is well-accepted today by researchers. It explains why young animals play more than older ones (they have more to learn) and why those animals that depend least on rigid instincts for survival, and most on learning, play the most. To a considerable degree, you can predict how an animal will play by knowing what skills it must develop in order to survive and reproduce. Lion cubs and other young predators play at stalking and pouncing or chasing, while zebra colts and other prey species play at fleeing and dodging.

"Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked?"

Groos followed The Play of Animals with a second book, The Play of Man (1901), in which he extended his insights about animal play to humans. He pointed out that humans, having much more to learn than other species, are the most playful of all animals.

Human children, unlike the young of other species, must learn different skills depending on the culture in which they are developing. Therefore, he argued, natural selection in humans favoured a strong drive for children to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play. He suggested that children in every culture, when allowed to play freely, play not only at the skills that are valuable to people everywhere (such as two-legged walking and running), but also at the skills that are specific to their culture (such as shooting bows and arrows or herding cattle).

My own research and ideas build on Groos’s pioneering work. One branch of that research has been to examine children’s lives in hunter-gatherer cultures. Prior to the development of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago or so, we were all hunter-gatherers. Some groups of people managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into recent times and have been studied by anthropologists. I have read all the writings I could find on hunter-gatherer childhoods, and a number of years ago I conducted a small survey of 10 anthropologists who, among them, had lived in seven different hunter-gatherer cultures on three different continents.

Hunter-gatherers have nothing akin to school. Adults believe that children learn by observing, exploring, and playing, and so they afford them unlimited time to do that. In response to my survey question, ‘How much time did children in the culture you observed have for play?’, the anthropologists unanimously said that the children were free to play nearly all of their waking hours, from the age of about four (when they were deemed responsible enough to go off, away from adults, with an age-mixed group of children) into their mid- or even late-teenage years (when they would begin, on their own initiatives, to take on some adult responsibilities).

For example, Karen Endicott, who studied the Batek hunter-gatherers of Malaysia, reported: ‘Children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens.’

This is very much in line with Groos’s theory about play as practice. The boys played endlessly at tracking and hunting, and both boys and girls played at finding and digging up edible roots. They played at tree climbing, cooking, building huts, and building other artefacts crucial to their culture, such as dugout canoes. They played at arguing and debating, sometimes mimicking their elders or trying to see if they could reason things out better than the adults had the night before around the fire.

They playfully danced the traditional dances of their culture and sang the traditional songs, but they also made up new ones. They made and played musical instruments similar to those that adults in their group made. Even little children played with dangerous things, such as knives and fire, and the adults let them do it, because ‘How else will they learn to use these things?’

They did all this, and more, not because any adult required or even encouraged them to, but because they wanted to. They did it because it was fun and because something deep inside them, the result of aeons of natural selection, urged them to play at culturally appropriate activities so they would become skilled and knowledgeable adults.

In another branch of my research I’ve studied how children learn at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, not far from my home in Massachusetts. It’s called a school, but is as different from what we normally think of as ‘school’ as you can imagine. The students — who range in age from four to about 19 — are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order.

To most people, this sounds crazy. How can they learn anything? Yet, the school has been in existence for 45 years now and has many hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world, not because their school taught them anything, but because it allowed them to learn whatever they wanted. And, in line with Groos’s theory, what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives.

When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

Even more important than specific skills are the attitudes that they learn. They learn to take responsibility for themselves and their community, and they learn that life is fun, even (maybe especially) when it involves doing things that are difficult. I should add that this is not an expensive school; it operates on less than half as much, per student, as the local state schools and far less than most private schools.

The Sudbury Valley School and a hunter-gatherer band are very different from one another in many ways, but they are similar in providing what I see as the essential conditions for optimising children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. They share the social expectation (and reality) that education is children’s responsibility, not something that adults do to them, and they provide unlimited freedom for children to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.

They also provide ample opportunities to play with the tools of the culture; access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults, who are helpers, not judges; and free age-mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is more conducive to learning than play among those who are all at the same level). Finally, in both settings, children are immersed in a stable, moral community, so they acquire the values of the community and a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves.

I don’t expect to convince most people, any time soon, that we should abolish schools as we know them today and replace them with centres for self-directed play and exploration. But I do think there is a chance of convincing most people that play outside of school is important. We have already taken too much of that away; we must not take away any more.

President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, along with other campaigners for more conventional schooling and more tests, want children to be better prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s world. But what preparation is needed? Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked?

Schools were designed to teach people to do those things, and they are pretty good at it. Or do we need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam? I bet Obama and Duncan would agree that all children need these skills today more than in the past. But schools are terrible at teaching these skills.

For more than two decades now, education leaders in the U.S., the UK and Australia have been urging us to emulate Asian schools — especially those of Japan, China, and South Korea. Children there spend more time at their studies than U.S. children, and they score higher on standardised international tests.

What U.S. Education Secretary Duncan apparently doesn’t realise, or acknowledge, is that educational leaders in those countries are now increasingly judging their educational system to be a failure. While their schools have been great at getting students to score well on tests, they have been terrible at producing graduates who are creative or have a real zest for learning.

In an article entitled ‘The Test Chinese Schools Still Fail’ in The Wall Street Journal in December, 2010, Jiang Xueqin, a prominent Chinese educator, wrote:

‘The failings of a rote-memorisation system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning…. One way we’ll know we’re succeeding in changing China’s schools is when those scores [on standardised tests] come down.’

Meanwhile, Yong Zhao, an American education professor who grew up in China and specialises in comparing the Chinese educational system with the system in the U.S., notes that a common term used in China to refer to graduates is gaofen dineng, meaning ‘high scores but low ability’. Because students spend nearly all their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative, take initiative, or develop physical and social skills: in short, they have little opportunity to play.

Unfortunately, as we move increasingly toward standardised curricula, and as we occupy ever more of our children’s time with schoolwork, our educational results indeed are becoming more like those of the Asian countries. One line of evidence comes from the results of a battery of measures of creativity — called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) — collected from normative samples of US schoolchildren in kindergarten through to 12th grade (age 17-18) over several decades.

Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, has analysed those scores and reported that they began to decline in 1984 or shortly after, and have continued to decline ever since. As Kim puts it in her article ‘The Creativity Crisis’, published in 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal, the data indicate that ‘children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle’.

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play.

According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called ‘creative elaboration’, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average elaboration score on the TTCT, for every grade from kindergarten onwards, fell by more than one standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85 per cent of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.

If education ‘reformers’ get their way, it will decline further still, as children are deprived even more of play. Other research, by the psychologist Mark Runco and colleagues at the Torrance Creativity Center at the University of Georgia, shows that scores on the TTCT are the best childhood predictors we have of future real-world achievements. They are better predictors than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most.

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood. Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play’.

A great deal of research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun. As the psychologist Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, has shown in her book Creativity in Context (1996) and in many experiments, the attempt to increase creativity by rewarding people for it or by putting them into contests to see who is most creative has the opposite effect.

It’s hard to be creative when you are worried about other people’s judgments. In school, children’s activities are constantly being judged. School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.

When Chanoff and I studied Sudbury Valley graduates for our paper ‘Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education?’, we asked about the activities they had played as students and about the careers they were pursuing since graduation. In many cases, there was a direct relationship between the two. Graduates were continuing to play the activities they had loved as students, with the same joy, passion, and creativity, but now they were making a living at it.

There were professional musicians who had played intensively with music when they were students, and computer programmers who had spent most of their time as students playing with computers. One woman, who was the captain of a cruise ship, had spent much of her time as a student playing on the water, first with toy boats and then with real ones. A man who was a sought-after machinist and inventor had spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked.

None of these people would have discovered their passions in a standard school, where extensive, free play does not occur. In a standard school, everyone has to do the same things as everyone else. Even those who do develop an interest in something taught in school learn to tame it because, when the bell rings, they have to move on to something else. The curriculum and timetable constrain them from pursuing any interest in a creative and personally meaningful way.

Years ago, children had time outside of school to pursue interests, but today they are so busy with schoolwork and other adult-directed activities that they rarely have time and opportunity to discover and immerse themselves deeply in activities they truly enjoy.

To have a happy marriage, or good friends, or helpful work partners, we need to know how to get along with other people: perhaps the most essential skill all children must learn for a satisfying life. In hunter-gatherer bands, at Sudbury Valley School, and everywhere that children have regular access to other children, most play is social play. Social play is the academy for learning social skills.

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit.

Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learnt a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play, you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.

Watch any group of children in play and you will see lots of negotiation and compromise. Preschoolers playing a game of ‘house’ spend more time figuring out how to play than actually playing. Everything has to be negotiated — who gets to be the mommy and who has to be the baby, who gets to use which props, and how the drama will unfold. The skilled players use tag questions to turn their assertions into requests: ‘Let’s pretend that the necklace is mine. OK?’ If it’s not OK, a discussion ensues.

We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.

Or watch an age-mixed group of children playing a ‘pickup’ game of baseball. A pickup game is play, because it’s directed by the players themselves, not by outside authorities (coaches and umpires) as a Little League game would be. The players have to choose sides, negotiate rules to fit the conditions, decide what’s fair and foul. They have to co-operate not just with the players on their team, but also with those on the other team, and they have to be sensitive to the needs and abilities of all the players. Big Billy might be the best pitcher, but if others want a turn at pitching he’d better let them have it, so they don’t quit.

And, when he pitches to tiny Timmy, who is just learning the game, he’d better toss the ball gently, right toward Timmy’s bat, or even his own teammates will call him mean. When he pitches to walloping Wally, however, he’d better throw his best stuff, because Wally would feel insulted by anything less. In the pickup game, keeping the game going and fun for everyone is far more important than winning.

The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practise that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness.

Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important. That’s also, I think, the best interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s line that all men are created equal. We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.

I don’t want to over-idealise children. Not all children learn these lessons easily; bullies exist. But social play is by far the most effective venue for learning such lessons, and I suspect that children’s strong drive for such play came about, in evolution, primarily for that purpose. Anthropologists report an almost complete lack of bullying or domineering behaviour in hunter-gatherer bands. In fact, another label regularly used for such band societies is egalitarian societies. The bands have no chiefs, no hierarchical structure of authority; they share everything and co-operate intensively in order to survive; and they make decisions that affect the whole band through long discussions aimed at consensus.

A major reason why they are able to do all that, I think, lies in the extraordinary amount of social play that they enjoy in childhood. The skills and values practised in such play are precisely those that are essential to life in a hunter-gatherer band. Today you might survive without those skills and values, but, I think, not happily.

So, play teaches social skills without which life would be miserable. But it also teaches how to manage intense, negative emotions such as fear and anger. Researchers who study animal play argue that one of play’s major purposes is to help the young learn how to cope emotionally (as well as physically) with emergencies.

Juvenile mammals of many species deliberately and repeatedly put themselves into moderately dangerous, moderately frightening situations in their play. Depending on the species, they might leap awkwardly into the air making it difficult to land, run along the edges of cliffs, swing from tree branch to tree branch high enough that a fall would hurt, or play-fight in such a way that they take turns getting into vulnerable positions from which they must then escape.

Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates.


Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it. Such play must always be self-directed, never forced or even encouraged by an authority figure. It’s cruel to force children to experience fears they aren’t ready for, as gym teachers do when they require all children in a class to climb ropes to the rafters or swing from one stand to another. In those cases the results can be panic, embarrassment, and shame, which reduce rather than increase future tolerance for fear.

Children also experience anger in their play. Anger can arise from an accidental or deliberate push, or a tease, or from failure to get one’s way in a dispute. But children who want to continue playing know they have to control that anger, use it constructively in self-assertion, and not lash out. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates. There is evidence that the young of other species also learn to regulate their anger and aggressiveness through social play.

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible.

To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.

Researchers have developed ways to raise young rats and monkeys in such a way that they experience other forms of social interaction but not play. The result is that the play-deprived animals are emotionally crippled when tested as young adults. When placed in a moderately frightening novel environment, they freeze in terror and fail to overcome that fear and explore the novel area, as a normal rat or monkey would do. When placed with an unfamiliar peer they might cower in fear or lash out with inappropriate and ineffective aggression, or both.

In recent decades we as a society have been conducting a play-deprivation experiment with our children. Today’s children are not absolutely deprived of play as the rats and monkeys are in the animal experiments, but they are much more deprived than children were 60 years ago and much, much more than children were in hunter-gatherer societies. The results, I think, are in.

Play deprivation is bad for children. Among other things, it promotes anxiety, depression, suicide, narcissism, and loss of creativity. It’s time to end the experiment.

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Peter Gray is a psychologist and research professor at Boston College. He writes the Freedom to Learn blog, and is the author of Free to Learn (2013) and Psychology (2011).