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Decline in outdoor and hands-on play slowed cognitive development in British Teenagers
Detail: The findings of a new study that tested children on thinking skills show fewer British teenagers now display mature reasoning as compared to 30 years earlier. Michael Shayer of King’s College London who has been testing children’s thinking skills since 1976, in 2006 and 2007 got 14-year-olds to take some of the same tests as 30 years earlier. More than a fifth of youngsters got high scores then, suggesting they were developing the ability to formulate and test hypotheses. Only a tenth do now.

The tests explored the ability to think deeply rather than to regurgitate information or quickly go through tasks. Professor Shayer explains, “Their answers indicated whether they had progressed from the descriptive thinking that gets us through most of our days, to the interpretative thinking needed to analyze complex information and formulate and test hypotheses.”

The researchers attributed the overall better performance of boys in 1976 to the fact that boys roamed further out of doors and played more with tools and mechanical toys. Though both sexes now do worse than before, boys’ scores have fallen more, suggesting that a decline in outdoor and hands-on play has slowed cognitive development in both sexes. Other factors such as Britain’s unusually early start to formal education where infants are diverted from useful activities such as making sand-castles and playing with water into unhelpful ones, such as holding a pen and forming letters, and focus on coaching the weakest, rather than all children, including the most able within the school systems are attributed to the lowering of standards even though the research findings also indicate that fewer children do very badly now than did 30 years ago.

Professor Shayer further posits local explanations such as television and computers for taking children away from the physical experiences on which later inferential skills are based. He thinks these new media teach children to value speed over depth and passive entertainment over active. Other researchers have also shown cognitive gains in today’s children on tasks that require speed rather than close reasoning.
Source: Based on a story titled, "Dimming" in The Economist, October 30, 2008
Date: October 31 2008