Brain behaviour - Making a hand stand

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Just like their cave-dwelling ancestors, today's digital generation must learn through touch, taste and sight. Aric Sigman argues the case for hands-on play

Nowadays, the mention of arts and crafts evokes a slight nostalgia, and in middle-aged men the words woodwork or metalwork can bring on a bout of sentimentality and an unexplained interest in potting sheds. But the idea of working with our hands is not to be taken too seriously. After all, it could lead to manual labour, which in class-conscious Britain appears to be the thing to avoid.

The powerful computer, software, games, internet and educational TV lobbies have succeeded in convincing parents and schools that playing with and learning through new technology is more effective in preparing children for tomorrow's world. Wrong.

For children to survive in the digital, virtual world of tomorrow, they have to touch, feel and see the real physical world today - with their own bare hands, just like their cave-dwelling, club-wielding ancestors.

Yet inside and outside school, the use of young hands has increasingly been reduced to the pressing of buttons or the clicking of a mouse. Educational policies have reduced the role of working with hands and removed some practical activities from the curriculum. We are now witnessing the effects of our supposedly advanced "software-instead-of- screwdriver" society.

A study of 10,000 British children, using a standard Piagetian test where they had to estimate and compare the volume of a liquid in different containers and the weights of differently shaped objects - considered a fairly robust indicator of cognitive development - shows that the performance of pupils is getting steadily worse. An 11-year-old today is performing at the level an eight or nine-year-old was performing at 30 years ago. In terms of cognitive and conceptual development, the researchers describe it as "a staggering result". They and others attribute this intellectual deficit to the increasing amount of time children are spending in the virtual world of computers and TV.

This is displacing hands-on play and learning that would allow them to experience how the world works in practice, gain an understanding of materials and processes, and to make judgments about abstract concepts.

A lack of hands-on experience in childhood is also showing up at work. Frank Wilson, the neurologist, has noted that senior engineers and car mechanics report a recent and noticeable decline in the ability of junior engineers and apprentice or work placement mechanics to conceptualise straightforward mechanical problems and their solutions. They seem to have missed certain areas of cognitive development because "they hadn't held a spanner or tinkered with an engine".

There are sound neurological reasons why working with one's own hands in a real-world 3-D environment is imperative for full cognitive and intellectual development. Using tools such as those in craft activities deploys and strengthens a variety of widely distributed, highly interactive networks of brain cells called mirror neurons. These are specialised cells involved in observational learning andor copying by example, and are the basis of education and culture. And so, intriguingly, hands-on activities are part of a greater civilizing process in children. Hands-on learning and crafts appear to exercise the brain in a variety of ways that go beyond the skills, hand-eye and muscle co-ordination used for the specific task at hand.

When you look more closely at our hand-brain relationship, it starts to make greater sense. Our hands are a highly evolved mechanism responsible for our high level of adaptation and survival. Research on 10-week-old foetuses indicates that nerve connections from the hands to the brain develop before the connections that allow the brain to control the hands. It is now believed that the foetus's hand movements and thumb-sucking, far from being controlled by the brain, may actually wire the brain in a way that, for instance, reinforces which hand is dominant.

A child's hands are particularly sensitive to perceiving and transmitting exceedingly sophisticated information to their learning brain. Elements of hand use, such as speed of movement, direction and mode of co-ordination in craft activities are reflected in robust brain activity. Using our hands seems to satisfy an evolutionary need.

It's time to make a "hand stand", strengthening the role of 3-D learning and crafts in the classroom and in educational policy-making. This means much more hands-on play and learning in the early years foundation stage and at primary school, opportunities for all children to play a musical instrument, and the reintroduction of crafts as the fundamental prerequisite to design and technology in primary and secondary school.

Teachers are in a good position to reverse the trend of soft-wiring our children's brains. But parents too have a responsibility to keep their children away from screens and let them take part in physical play.

This thought should concentrate our minds. Would you feel more or less reassured to know that your brain surgeon, who is using the latest computerised surgical technique on you, spent more of his youth in the virtual or hands-on world of play?

Dr Aric Sigman is a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and author of Remotely Controlled


Sigman, A. (2008) Practically Minded: The benefits and mechanisms associated with a craft-based curriculum. Published by Ruskin Mill Educational Trust;

Shayer, M., Ginsburg, D., amp; Coe. R. (2007) Thirty Years On - a large anti-Flynn effect? The Piagetian test: volume amp; heaviness norms 1975- 2003, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77:1, 25-41

Wilson, F.R. The Hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture (Vintage, 1999).

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