Kids are natural scientists, it turns out.
In an article published last week in Science, psychologist Alison Gopnik reviewed the literature about the way young children learn, and she finds that the way preschoolers play is very similar to the way scientists do experiments: Kids come up with general principles, akin to scientific theories, based on the data of their daily lives. Gopnik argues that the research should steer educators and policy makers away from more-regimented, dogmatic kinds of preschool instruction.
The NIH National Children’s Study was launched in 2000 with much fanfare and an important mission: to follow a hundred thousand of American children from birth to age 21 and collect data on the environmental, chemical, physical, and psychosocial factors affecting them, with an eye towards understanding diseases that start in childhood, including autism, diabetes and asthma.
Now, however, the study has been deemed too expensive to continue in the same form—so far, only about 4,000 children have been enrolled, at a cost of a billion dollars. While it makes sense to look into bringing the costs down, one of the NIH’s money-saving strategies is in danger of compromising the study’s statistical usefulness: instead of continuing to recruit children from all over the country, the NIH is proposing working with health maintenance organizations, or HMOs, to gather the remaining data. This move would mean that children in rural areas, which tend not to be served by HMOs, would be excluded, and the mountains of data the study is poised to gather would not be complete. Already, two advisory board members have resigned in protest of this proposed policy.
Given all the time and money have already been invested in the study, these changes are a big deal. To find out more about the National Children’s Study controversy, and learn about what’s happening next, check out Nature News‘ thorough coverage.
Image courtesy of leean_b / flickr
Parents should strictly limit how much children under two years old watch television or videos, says the American Academy of Pediatrics in a new policy statement, since TV time not only doesn’t seem to benefit babies, it may come with developmental drawbacks. (Activities like computer and touchscreen games, where the babies interact with what’s happening on the screen rather than passively watch it, aren’t included in the statement.) The academy issued a similar statement in 1999, discouraging screen time for kids less than 24 months old—and in the intervening decade, there’s been more research to back up that recommendation.
Yesterday the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, expanding the age range at which the condition can be diagnosed to include kids as young as 4 years old all the way up to young adults aged 18. The previous guidelines, made a decade ago, limited diagnoses to kids ages 6 to 12. The physician group decided to make the change due to new evidence that ADHD symptoms can surface in preschool-aged children and persist later into adolescence and adulthood than previously recognized. The report says methylphenidate (Ritalin) may help control ADHD symptoms in children ages 4 and 5, though only one large study has been done to support this conclusion. The authors stress, however, that medication should only be given after behavioral modifications are attempted—and that Ritalin may have some serious possible side effects like irreversibly slowing growth.
Between 2001 and 2008, the number of children 5 years old or younger admitted to the emergency room due to poisoning from pharmaceuticals increased 36 percent, according to a new study [PDF]. This pales in comparison to the 8 percent increase in population of the age group. Ingestion of drugs during this period caused 43 percent more kids to be injured, defined as a reaction requiring a medical treatment, to a permanent disability, or death. In all, 90 kids died from unintentional overdose or misuse of medications.
Researchers say that pharmaceutical poisoning of children, especially from prescription medications, is a growing problem that continues to get worse every year. But why? The most likely reason, they suggest, is the overall increase in use of prescription drugs by adolescents and adults, which children can come across and ingest without knowing the consequences. For example, the number of kids injured by opioid pain medications almost doubled during the study, a period when prescriptions for the strong painkillers oxycodone (present in OxyContin and Percocet) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) increased 182 and 159 percent, respectively.
A study published yesterday in the journal Pediatrics found that pre-schoolers who watched a nine-minute clip of Nickledeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants scored lower on a variety of cognitive tests given to them immediately afterward, compared to peers who spent the same time watching an educational PBS show or drawing. Although the researchers don’t specifically call out SpongeBob (one of the most popular shows amongst children ages 2-11), they conclude that fast-paced, entertainment-oriented shows like this, which rapidly cut between different scenes, could cause short-term reductions in children’s ability to focus and solve problems.
That may sound ominous, but it’s important to note that the study only looked at children immediately after watching the show, so there’s no evidence that this effect will persist. And although previous research has shown a clear association between watching television at a young age and attention problems later in life, it’s not clear whether TV—or any particular shows—are actually causing long-term problems. Still, if your 4-year-old is about to take a preschool entrance exam, it’s probably not the best time for a SpongeBob marathon.
[Via the Los Angeles Times]
If having kids has made you feel like less of a party animal, men, you now have some science backing you up. A new study following men from their single salad days through the early years of their children’s lives found that fathers had a steeper decline in testosterone levels than men who remained single and childless. Though previous studies had indicated that fathers had lower testosterone, this is the first study to look at men before and after fatherhood, showing that it’s not just that lower-testosterone males are more likely to become dads. (In fact, this study shows the opposite—it’s the hormone-pumped guys who are more likely to settle down with a partner and have kids.)
But testosterone declines naturally with age, and stress is known to contribute to cellular aging. Is the accelerated decline because zero sleep, frayed nerves, and other byproducts of procreating are making men old before their time? That’s a question for next time—this study doesn’t address the decline’s cause.
Image courtesy of edenpictures / flickr
What’s the News: Childhood obesity rates have escalated dramatically in recent years, in concert with nationwide explosion that has 34% of American adults falling into that category.
Now, scientists writing in the July 13 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association argue that much as feeding kids too little is considered child neglect, so should be feeding them too much. And if the former is grounds for removing them from their families, then the former may be as well.
As you can imagine, in the last 24 hours, numerous commentators have responded, and the ensuing debate touches on the causes of obesity and the difficulty of treating such a pervasive, devastating problem.
Parents, of course, love to read too much into the small steps of a child’s development. But could it really be that the self-control kids learn to exert when they are very young is an indicator of the adult lives they will lead?
Right from the start, they are taught to restrain their impulses, focus on their goals, and control their choices. This seems like a wise move, but how could you tell if such instruction actually affects a child’s fate?
Ideally, you would follow a group of children into adulthood, to see how their degree of self-control affects the course of their lives. You’d need to catch up with them at regular intervals to look at their health, mental state, finances and more. You’d need to meticulously plan the study decades before the important results came in, and you’d need to keep in close touch with the volunteers so they stick with the study. In short, you’d need to have set up the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.
That study began in the mid-1970s, and all these years later, nearly all of the thousand-plus participants (who were born in 1972 or 1973) are still involved. The huge data set Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi have obtained shows that those who scored highest on self-control tests in the first years of their lives were healthier and wealthier than their peers into their 30s.
For all the details, check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
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