Twenty-six studies point to more play for young children

Twenty-six studies point to more play for young children

What if one of the answers to reducing inequality and addressing mental health concerns among young children is as simple as providing more opportunities to play? A growing body of research and several experts are making the case for play to boost the well-being of young children as the pandemic drags on—even as concerns over lost learning time and the pressure to catch kids up grow stronger.

Play is so powerful, according to a recent report by the LEGO Foundation , that it can be used as a possible intervention to close achievement gaps between children ages 3 to 6. The report looked at 26 studies of play from 18 countries. It found that in disadvantaged communities, including those in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Ethiopia, children showed significantly greater learning gains in literacy, motor and social-emotional development when attending child care centers that used a mix of instruction and free and guided play. That’s compared to children in centers with fewer opportunities to play, especially in child-led activities, or that placed a greater emphasis on rote learning. This is important, the report’s authors noted, as it shows free and guided play opportunities are possible even in settings where resources may be scarce. “Play can exist everywhere,” said Bo Stjerne Thomsen, chair of Learning Through Play at the LEGO Foundation. “It’s the experience. Testing and trying out new ideas…It’s really about the state of mind you’re in while playing.”

The report found that play enabled children to progress in several domains of learning, including language and literacy, social emotional skills and math. The varieties of play include games, open play where children can freely explore and use their imaginations and play where teachers provide materials and some parameters. The findings suggest that rather than focusing primarily on academic outcomes and school readiness, play should be used as a strategy to “tackle inequality and improve the outcomes of children from different socio-economic groups.” That also means opportunities to play should be considered a marker of quality in early childhood programs, the authors concluded. Stjerne Thomsen said the authors have not defined an ideal amount of play as they believe it can be embedded throughout the day. More importantly, he added, is that teachers are trained to facilitate free play and guided play opportunities. “Play is often defined as recreation…not serious or practical,” said Stjerne Thomsen. Instead, many schools are focused on academic skills and standardized assessments, he added.

The findings of the report, which echo years of related research on the emotional physical and cognitive benefits of play, are notable considering that in America access to play spaces is lacking in many lower-income and rural communities. That became more noticeable during the pandemic when outdoor […]

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Prof Narayanan's Research Teaches AI To Find Anyone's Emotional State By Voice

Prof Narayanan’s Research Teaches AI To Find Anyone’s Emotional State By Voice

Human voice is a rich medium with which we not only communicate our wants and needs and intent but it’s also a very special way of expressing our emotions and identity in emerging times where AI is increasingly becoming part of our lives, people want to use that to interact with other digital systems not only for transactional purposes, such as asking about weather, but more so as a social companion for elderly Human speech is rather special as it carries information about our intent, emotions, identity and several other data, like our health state A true AI system, therefore, should not only recognise the intonational properties of human speech, the words we speak and the way we interact but also take into account the nonverbal cues It’s almost like a painting, where we mix different basic colours to create a landscape with different possibilities.

Shrikanth Narayanan is a Professor at the University of Southern California and an interdisciplinary engineer-scientist with a focus on human-centered signal processing and machine intelligence as well as informatics with speech and spoken language processing at its core.

A prolific award-winning researcher, educator and inventor, with hundreds of publications to his credit, his work translates to using speech and audio to identify mental health and wellness issues, analyzing the health and stress level of workers and developing AI tools for understanding how stories are told in film and TV from a social lens. Flickr So sit back, plug in your headphones, tune in to your favourite lo-fi channel and read on this interesting conversation that we had with Professor Narayanan.

What do we understand about voice as a medium of communication in the age of AI?

Human voice is a rich medium with which we not only communicate our wants and needs and intent but it’s also a very special way of expressing our emotions and identity. And spoken language in humans is particularly remarkable. It allows us to easily communicate all our thoughts, ideas and desires through voice; and in emerging times where AI is increasingly becoming part of our lives, people want to use that to interact with other digital systems not only for transactional purposes, such as asking about weather, but more so as a social companion for elderly and learning systems for children. Representative image While today’s AI like Echo, Siri and Google Assistant does an outstanding job of word recognition and analysis, its dependence on speech alone is an inherent limitation–it, kind of, seems mechanical. When can we have an AI system that is truly capable of sensing and reacting to a user’s emotions?

Human speech is rather special as it carries information about our intent, emotions, identity and several […]

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How to Build a Culture of Inclusivity Starting With Your Kids

How to Build a Culture of Inclusivity Starting With Your Kids

I’m a parent of three children, ages 8, 10, and 13, with mixed identities. We’re Brown first- and second-generation Americans descended from Indian and Pakistani immigrants.

As a result, I’ve been keenly aware of how my kids are relating to their identities as they engage in their own paths of self-discovery.

Each has grappled in their own way with understanding how they “fit” into their surroundings. They code-switch and accentuate aspects of their identity like race, family background, and family culture to better assimilate in their communities.

When we traveled around the world as a family for a year, we all got a lot of practice in code-switching techniques. In each country, we accentuated the aspects of our identity that helped us assimilate, to be included by the community as one of their own instead of transactional tourists.

For example, in the 4-plus months that we traveled through Central and South America, we leaned into our Spanish-speaking skills and brown skin to facilitate friendships with locals.

In Cuba, we were proud when we were mistaken for Cubanos and relished an Indian shopkeeper’s delight when our bargaining language switched from Spanish to Hindi.

We loved feeling like locals but were aware of our differences, a balance that kept us culturally humble and hungry to learn.

The feeling of inclusion is powerful, yet it’s easy to take for granted when you’re used to it. Perhaps the best way to capture the power of inclusivity is to remember the painful feeling of its opposite.

Recall the hurt of realizing you weren’t invited to the birthday party or weren’t welcome to sit at the “cool” lunch spot at school. Remember those moments when you weren’t let in on the secret or didn’t get the “inside joke” that others shared?

Exclusion stings. It makes us feel like we are the “other.” We aren’t extended the acceptance, approval, and empathy afforded to those who are included.

In addition to the feeling of exclusion, we can look to science. Research tells us that social relationships affect a number of health outcomes, including physical and mental health.

A sense of belonging makes us feel that we aren’t alone, increasing our ability to cope more effectively with hardships. In other words, the stronger the connections and ties are to the communities we’re exposed to and identify with, the more resilient and empathetic we are likely to become. Here’s the catch. If we find inclusion and a sense of belonging only in like-minded people, we perpetuate implicit biases and discrimination. Put another way, creating “inclusion” through the act of excluding others falsely empowers a few while harming the larger community. For instance, the concept of patriotism hinges upon whether someone […]

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Adolescent Brains Are Wired to Want Status and Respect: That’s an Opportunity for Teachers and Parents

Adolescent Brains Are Wired to Want Status and Respect: That’s an Opportunity for Teachers and Parents

Credit: Alison Seiffer Here is a parable for our time: There once was an adult who wanted to encourage eighth graders to eat healthier food. The adult designed a lesson plan full of nutritional information—why fruit and vegetables are good for you, why junk food is bad for you, and so on. A similar approach had worked with younger children. But the eighth graders declared the intervention—and, if we’re being honest, the adult—boring. They carried on eating junk food, some of them in greater quantities than they had before.

Versions of that story play out in real life all the time, although the age of the adolescents varies, and the goal could be anything from reducing bullying or depression to increasing engagement with math. With discouraging regularity, researchers find that what works with younger children is no longer effective with adolescents. Eighth grade seems to be the inflection point.

If we thought more carefully about what it is to be an eighth grader, however, down to the level of changes in the brain, our parable could have a happier ending. Thirteen-year-olds are concerned with status and respect—these kids do not want to feel patronized by adults. In a study published in 2019 in Nature Human Behaviour, instead of nutritional information, researchers showed more than 300 eighth graders in Texas investigative reports revealing that food company executives use unhealthy ingredients, target young adolescents in their marketing, and won’t let their own children eat their products. The students were outraged and began to see healthy eating as a way of taking a stand against being manipulated. For the next three months the students made healthier snack purchases in the cafeteria. And in a follow-up study, the researchers found that the students, especially boys, with higher levels of testosterone (a marker of pubertal maturation in both boys and girls) were most likely to respond well to the intervention. Advertisement Over the past 15 years neuroscience has dramatically changed our understanding of the structural and functional changes in the brain during adolescence, which runs from around the age of 10 all the way into the mid-20s. It is a time of rapid brain growth and neuronal fine-tuning when young people are especially sensitive to social cues and rewards. More recent research has focused on how the adolescent brain interacts with the social environment. It shows that social context and acceptance strongly influence behavior. Adolescence might even constitute a sensitive period for social and emotional learning, a window of time when the brain is uniquely primed by neurochemical changes to make use of social cues for learning.

A growing group of researchers and clinicians see these neuroscientific findings as a chance to do things differently. When a […]

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Kids' Stuttering & Regulation Of Emotions Are Connected

Kids’ Stuttering & Regulation Of Emotions Are Connected

In a recent study, researchers looked at the connection between emotional reactivity, emotion regulation, and stuttering for preschool-aged children. The research study included a mixture of children who were diagnosed with a speech disfluency or stutter and children who were considered to have fluent speech and language skills.

The researchers believed that children with speech disfluencies who experience strong, unregulated emotions would see an increase in stuttering as they tried to talk during that phase of emotional intensity. Through their study, the researchers saw that children who struggled with speech during preschool and also dealt with emotional dysregulation were more likely to develop a clinically significant stuttering problem as they continued to grow.

In other words, an emotionally dysregulated child with a predisposition to display speech disfluencies is more likely to experience a disfluency problem over their lifetime, especially if their emotional dysregulation continues through their childhood and into adulthood.

This could also mean that children who may have a minor stutter or other speech problem could ultimately develop a more chronic stutter over time if they also deal with untreated emotional dysregulation.

According to the National Institutes of Health, as much as 10 percent of all children will stutter at some point during their childhood. Although many children outgrow this developmental stuttering, the connection between a child’s inability to regulate emotions and their stutter could cause more children to carry their stutter into late childhood and even adulthood if they don’t receive any interventions for their emotional dysregulation.

The team at St. Louis Children’s Hospital notes that traditional treatment approaches for developmental stutters include speech therapy and at-home practice to help a child practice slowing down their speech and breathing while speaking. In most cases, this can help prevent the stuttering from carrying over past childhood.

How Empathy Affects Learning, And How To Cultivate It In Your Students

“The education system forces people to unlearn the empathy they were born with. It’s a system based on always seeming strong, contributing to the economy, and being number one. Being number one is the rule of game, and how we relate to others is fundamentally dismissed.” –Bernard Amadei, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Engineers Without Borders USA

More than two decades ago, scientists made a discovery that fundamentally altered the way we think about empathy. While observing monkeys, they noticed that certain brain cells responded both when a monkey performed an action and when that monkey watched another monkey perform the same action. The same cells can be found in the human brain. These cells, called mirror neurons, fire when we see something happening to someone else that we could imagine happening to ourselves, from stubbing a toe to winning the lottery.

The discovery of mirror neurons was a significant breakthrough because it revealed that our brains have evolved in a way that enables us to recognise and understand the emotions and intentions of others not just by thinking but actually feeling. It sent ripples through a number of scientific disciplines and challenged our understanding of everything from language and philosophy to psychotherapy–and certainly of empathy. Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran has argued that these neurons allow us to learn complex social behaviors and has called them “the basis of civilization.”

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