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The Name of the Game Is Crossing the Street

Kids who can focus on game tend to cross streets safely

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A study sponsored by the British government to improve street safety among children has found that young children who can concentrate on games are more attentive when they step off a curb.

Psychologists tested 101 children, ages 4 to 10, for two kinds of focus skills -- concentrating on a task and being able to switch tasks quickly -- and then observed them cross the streets with a parent. They found that youngsters who were best at the tests were more likely to stop and look for cars in the road and walk rather than run across a street.

"There was a link between the amount of self control children showed as they were crossing the road and their distractibility in the laboratory tests," says lead study author George Dunbar, a University of Warwick psychologist. The finding appears in the September Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

But while exercises and computer games can teach adults to concentrate better, Dunbar says the jury is still out on whether young children have the developmental skills to absorb such lessons.

"It's unclear whether these skills can be trained because of maturational constraints," Dunbar says.

Brigette Ryalls, a specialist in childhood development at the University of Nebraska, says, "The average 4-year-old isn't very good at ignoring distraction, and [in this country] we don't expect them to be very good, which is why pre-schools are unstructured. But other cultures, like Japan, start kids in structured classrooms at much younger ages, and they are expected to perform. It may be that children will do what's expected of them."

The British researchers used two tests, the first to see how adept the children were at switching from one task to another, a skill important when crossing the street while engaged in conversation or play.

Told that a frog was jumping unseen between a house and a train, the children were asked to push either a red or green button to report where the frog was. They were given the information with a visual cue that appeared on a video screen. Their speed in making the switch between the house and train was recorded.

Next, 35 of the children were tested for their ability to concentrate. They had to match the two identical faces among six pictures. Halfway through the test, which included more than a dozen different rounds, a cartoon was also shown. and researchers measured how much longer the children took to match faces while being tempted by the cartoon.

Then all the children, each with a parent holding their hands, were unknowingly videotaped crossing a street. Researchers found that the children who were the most distracted in the tests were the most impulsive on the street, trying to run ahead and not stopping to look for oncoming traffic.

In both video tests children in each age group showed a wide variability. "Some children kept on going with the [concentration test] as if they wore blinkers, while some children walked right over to the cartoon," Dunbar says.

Not surprisingly, younger children were far less skillful at focusing and switching tasks than older children. The 4- and 5-year-olds, for instance, took an average of 2¼ seconds to figure out the right button to push to locate the frog, compared with only a half second for the 7- and 8-year-olds.

Dunbar says, "This is a large effect" when considering the dangers of making decisions in traffic.

He says his study is one of five commissioned by the British government to look into the dangers of children and traffic accidents and that further research is planned to develop educational materials to help reduce the incidence of children's traffic accidents.

In the meantime, he says parents must shepherd their small children through traffic.

"If it's possible, [parents should be] with them in the road environment when children are young. You can't rely on children for self-control," he says.

What To Do: For information about children and traffic safety, check the National Safety Council. Some simple games to enhance children's cognitive abilities can be found at Knoxville Child Care.

SOURCES: Interviews with George Dunbar, Ph.D., University of Warwick, Warwickshire, U.K.; Brigette Ryalls, Ph.D., associate professor, University of Nebraska, Omaha; September 2001 Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
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