The Benefits and Mechanisms Associated with a

Practical Skills-Based Curriculum

Dr Aric Sigman

Commissioned by the Ruskin Mill Trust (RMT)

First published 2008, revised 2012, 2015, 2019)

Partial Revision 2019

Copyright © Aric Sigman and Ruskin Mill Trust 2019


The following is not a systematic review. The author has attempted to

examine the practical skills therapeutic education approach and reported

benefits for students, and to identify relevant research that may enable one to

better understand the mechanisms that may underlie this. This 2019 edition is

a partial revision of some of the key areas such as tool use, hand use,

movement, screen activities/screen dependency disorders, exposure to

nature. Any suggestions as to how children and young people should be

guided to better health and development are based on the precautionary

principle in health and medicine.

Dr Aric Sigman is a child health education lecturer, Chartered Biologist (Fellow, Royal Society

of Biology), Chartered psychologist (Associate Fellow, British Psychological Society),

Chartered Scientists (Science Council). Further information:

While the outcomes of a practical skills therapeutic education have been

valued and noted (Ofsted, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016a, 2016b), research

in cognitive neuroscience and psychology continues to find surprising and

previously unrecognised benefits that are conferred upon pupils. Moreover,

the mechanisms behind these benefits point to the urgent need for greater

incorporation of such practical elements into mainstream education. Beyond

the cognitive and neurological aspects of the practical skills-based curriculum

are secondary processes such as mentoring through apprenticeship. These

produce further benefits that aid the development of the pupil into a more

socially viable and employable young adult. The findings of this report are

applicable to pupils with or without learning difficulties.


The following is an overview of the conclusions contained in this report.

• Practical and craft-based education is especially well-suited for developing entrepreneurship and enterprise cultivating a more general capacity to function and work in other areas: competencies are ‘transferable’ in a broad sense.

• A curriculum rich in manipulation of materials, creativity, experimentation and design is linked to positive employment outcomes for craft-based students.

• However, some of the mechanisms underlying these benefits are poorly understood by those working in education. Three-Dimensional Skills

• A curriculum primarily based on practical skills activities cultivates precisely the cognitive and physical experiences necessary for full intellectual development.

• In particular, practical curricula develop visual and three-dimensional skills and an understanding of materials and processes. Researchers believe, ‘in the transition towards a digital future it is important that an experience of tangible 3D qualities is maintained’.

• Yet, increasing time spent in the virtual world of digital screen technology is displacing hands-on play and hands-on learning that allows young people to experience how the world works in practice and to make informed judgments about abstract concepts. This change is producing the first signs of a ‘software-instead-of-screwdriver-society’.

• Studies of young people with ASD are finding a more pronounced attraction to screen overuse. Young people with ASD are likely to spend most of their free time on screens. ‘Extended screen time has a multitude of harmful effects on typically developing youth’ but ‘youth with autism spectrum disorder may be even more at risk than typically developing peers for many of these harmful effects.’ Boys in particular ‘are much more likely to develop problematic or addictive patterns of video game play.’ Given the emphasis on ‘real-world’ 3-D learning, a practical skills therapeutic education is likely to reduce this risk. There now appear to be neurological explanations as to why working with one’s own hands in a ‘real-world’ 3-D learning environment is imperative for full cognitive and intellectual development. Cognitive and Neurological Development

• Using tools such as those in craft activities, uses and strengthens brain systems which extend far beyond the skills, hand-eye and muscle coordination related to the craft. Such tool use - described as ‘complex, real-world behavior’ – also involves and stimulates cognitive, perceptual and social processes.

• In early years, watching others’ hand use and manipulating objects with one’s own hands is associated with the development of social communication skills.

• Tool training and tool use influences the structure and functions of the brain and the hand plays a crucial role. ‘Brain functions may change in response to interactions with materials: neurofunctional reorganization.’

• The integrated practical skills therapeutic education advanced by the RMT may, in effect, be providing a greater degree of stimulation to the social brain networks of young people. And this may underlie the conclusion of the last Ofsted inspection report for Ruskin Mill College stating that students ‘cooperate successfully with their peers; their communication skills improve significantly and they become able to speak with greater confidence in different situations and with unfamiliar people.’ (Ofsted RMC 2015)

• The learning brain receives high levels of vital information through the sensations and movements of the hands.

• Elements of hand use such as movement velocity, direction and mode of coordination in craft activities are reflected in ‘robust’ brain activity.

• This may partly explain why most human beings find learning easiest when they begin a learning experience with a ‘hands-on’ kinesthetic activity.

• New research suggests that different ways of using the hands may have significant effects on how individuals think.

• ‘Hands-on’ exploration seems critical for the development of understanding and inventiveness. The use of hands seems central to intelligence and crucial to full cognitive learning.

• There is concern regarding a shift in educational policies, which reduces the role of working with hands and removes woodwork, metalwork, music or car mechanics from the educational curriculum.

• The neuro-cognitive effects of craft based activities have now been employed clinically to improve brain and cognitive functioning. ‘Whole-Body’ Learning

• Physical Literacy - physical movement skills - is increasingly thought to be linked to academic and intellectual performance. Autistic children with better motor skills have been found to be more adept at socializing and better at ‘daily living skills’.

• ‘Whole-body’ learning of a practical skills therapeutic education seamlessly keeps young people moving and physically active. Practical skills therapeutic education involves a great deal of general body movement and physical activity and low levels of sedentary time. And as is the case with hand movement and tool use, general body movement and physical activity has profound cognitive and intellectual implications for students.

• Physical activity appears to provide short-term reductions of stereotypic behaviours in young people with ASD. Furthermore, benefits are not limited to these stereotypical behaviours; several studies have found improvements in other areas for those with ASD.

• Physical activity can improve cognitive performance intimately linked to ADHD’ in children with and without ADHD’.

• Physical activity appears to cause brain changes by modifying’ white matter integrity and activation of regions key to cognitive processes.’ Higher IQ, intellectual performance and achievement are now linked to greater physical activity and fitness.

• And the physical activity taking place within the woodland ecology, gardening, horticulture and farming components of integrated practical skills therapeutic education may afford additional benefits. Recent research has found that even small doses of outdoor physical activity may have significant effects on mental health. Locus of Control

• The mechanism by which practical skills-based activities - where the learner is fully involved in all stages of the process – may produce positive effects, in part by reinforcing and cultivating a greater internal locus of control within the student which becomes generalised.

• Through crafts, students can gain a greater sense of control over a wider range of things in their lives. For example, greater internal locus of control is “significantly related to educational attainment” and is linked with having a lower level of work-family conflicts.

• Emotional stability, behaviour and mental health are also influenced by locus of control, along with an increased ability to delay gratification, tolerate ambiguous situations, or resist coercion, a lower association with suffering from anxiety, and a reduced risk of suffering from depression, other psychopathologies, and behavioural problems. Attentional Functioning and Self-Regulation

• The process of ‘start-to-finish learning’ reinforced through a practical skills-based curriculum emphasis greater sustained attention, selfregulation and deferred gratification vital to impulse control.

• These self-regulation abilities - including the ability to alternately shift and focus attention and to inhibit impulsive responding - are now related to early academic success and are now considered by some as more important in early academic progress than measures of intelligence Green Curriculum Nature exposure: curricula involving woodland ecology, gardening, horticulture and farming are increasingly found to positively affect cognitive functioning, academic performance, obesity and physical and mental health in young people e.g.:

• Exposure to nature is now linked to immediate changes in brain function (reduced rumination) and reductions in key stress-related compounds.

Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder  (ADHD) have been observed as being better able to concentrate after  contact with nature. The same is true of people without ADHD. 

• Children with contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration  and self-discipline. 

• Results for schools with outdoor education curricula show better  performance on standardised measures of academic achievement in  reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Classroom behavior  shows improvements as well. 

• Nature buffers the impact of life's stresses on young people and helps  them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure,  the greater the benefits 

• Regular exposure to nature and greenery increases self-discipline in  students. 

• Greater generosity and compassion are now linked to being immersed  in natural environments of the type found within the woodland ecology,  gardening, horticulture and farming components of integrated practical  skills therapeutic education.

Agricultural Literacy

• A curriculum involving contact with agriculture makes the abstract more  concrete – pupils are more likely to absorb and integrate food  knowledge if they have hands-on experience of its origins. The degree  of contact pupils have with the agriculture translates into a better  understanding and awareness of the food chain. Furthermore, pupils  with greater agricultural literacy are more likely to make better food  choices.



• Most young people today are exposed mainly to imposed imagery:  television, DVDs, computer-based and social media images, and even  picture books. Cognitive demands are reduced by perceiving  something that is already apparent, rather than creating an image of  something that is not apparent. Storytelling, or reading aloud a chapter,  is an effective method of stimulating the brain's ability for induced  imagery - storytelling provides excellent cognitive exercise.

• The oral story holds the attention of the listener and this process of  focusing a group's attention contributes to other educational activities,  enhancing social skills and confidence. 

Context of Curriculum

• The specific benefits of a practical curriculum above are potentiated by  the environment and context in which learning takes place. 

• Factors such as low pupil to teacher ratio, mentoring and  apprenticeship, positive role modelling, gaining ‘a sense of the elder’ - are all highly significant. There is also great emphasis on seeing a  process through from its source to an end result which provides a  sense of connection and continuity which goes further than the  college, linking with the traditions and environment of the community in  which the college exists. Crafts may also contribute to a moral and  social development as they possess an inherent lawfulness. 

In 2003, Higher Education Academy drew attention to “The new employability  agenda for higher education …requires an holistic approach” (Higher  Education Academy 2003)


The Integrated Practical Skills Therapeutic Education continues to offer such  a ‘holistic’ approach … but with an increasing understanding of the  mechanisms underlying this approach.

The whole is greater than the sum of its curriculum

In 2019 the UK Parliament discussed a motion on ‘Unemployment and  Autism’ stating that only ‘16% of adults with autism spectrum conditions are in  full-time employment’ - only 32% are in any kind of paid work. (Hansard 2019;  NAS 2019)

The latest National Autism Indicators Report: Transition into Young Adulthood concludes that ‘approximately one in four young adults with autism … never  saw or talked with friends and were never invited to social activities within the  past year … over one-third of young adults with autism do not transition into  either employment or continued education between high school and their  early 20s – a problem that poses both financial and social costs to society,  families, and individual well-being. (Roux et al 2015)

A practical skills therapeutic education approach is increasingly found to  redress this situation.

The most recent British government’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) inspection reports continue to describe Ruskin Mill Colleges offering  a practical skills therapeutic education as places where:

‘students develop good employability skills … The innovative, practical  curriculum helps students with significant and complex barriers to learning  reduce their levels of anxiety, become more confident and make good  progress in managing their behaviour… developing their communication,  personal and practical skills ... independence and the way they interact with  each other and the wider community. Students’ progression after college is  good …The large majority of students develop the necessary skills to  progress to the next level of study or into employment … the standard of students’ practical work is consistently good, and often outstanding …most  students achieve a good range of skills and qualifications in practical land  management, crafts, creative activities and in English and mathematics  …students continue to make good progress since the last inspection in the  development of personal, social and independence skills. They learn to  manage their anxieties and behaviour and cooperate successfully with their  peers; their communication skills improve significantly and they become able  to speak with greater confidence in different situations and with unfamiliar  people.’ (Ofsted RMC 2015; Ofsted FMC 2016; Ofsted GHC 2016)

Within such government assessments lie several fundamental factors that are  increasingly found to potentiate cognitive, social, emotional, intellectual and  physical functioning in young people. Moreover, while these factors are  beneficial in remedial education, they are equally important in mainstream  education. (Porko-Hudd et al 2018)

Working with one’s hands or tools has perhaps suffered from a legacy of  being considered an example of the ‘toil’ of manual labour, a ‘lower-class’  behaviour limited to the muscles and bones of the body, as distinct from  working with the mind and intellect. However, this preconception continues to  be overturned with growing evidence that using the hands and tools produces  neurological and intellectual benefits.

Entrepreneurship and enterprise education are current themes in education debates. A practical skills craft-based curriculum has repeatedly been  mentioned as being especially well-suited for education in entrepreneurship  education and enterprise. In Nordic countries practical skills hand crafts are a  more integral part of mainstream education. In Finland for example it is  generally studied as a compulsory subject from ages 7 – 14 in basic  education, and as an optional subject from ages 15-16. In some upper  secondary schools, it can also be taught as a diploma course. The subject is  currently associated with goals such as developing students’ inventiveness,  creativity, initiative taking, self-reliance and risk-taking ability. (Elo 2016)


In the study ‘The craft process developing student decision making’,  researchers concluded that ‘a learning process that encourages people to  learn by doing develops their problem-solving skills, participation, interaction,  and decision making. Craft making includes practice, development, creativity,  innovativeness, and the problem-solving process, and the craft teaching aims  to promote students’ substance skills of crafts and the skills they need in  everyday life. Craft skills make people more active and help them to find  practical solutions. Decision making seems to be one of the connecting  themes between crafts and enterprise’. (Rönkkö & Lepistö 2016)

A recent study entitled ‘Students confronting risks during holistic craft  processes’ observed that crafts ‘include risk-taking during every phase of the  process.’ Crafts involve ‘situations in which students either take risks or avoid  them … economical risk emphasised in the design and production phases, in  which the students make decisions regarding the product to be made and the  techniques to be used. Psychological risk-taking is particularly connected to  the production phase of the craft process, in which the students begin  production and progress through its phases. Social risk-taking situations are  linked to the design and evaluation phases, in which the students interact with  their peer group and the social environment.’ The researchers concluded that  students ‘identifying and taking controlled risks, is an important skill in a  changing society looking toward the future.’ (Häsänen et al 2018)

The practical curriculum has been found to confer more than the skills  learned. Research from unrelated diverse disciplines indicates that practical  skills-based education develops a more general capacity to function and work  in other areas. In other words, competencies are transferable in a broad  sense: 

Craft courses score highly in terms of providing students with creativity,  independence, determination and problem-solving skills. Crucially they  provide them with craft knowledge, which can be applied broadly.”


Research into the working lives of graduates from craft-based courses  revealed that: Craft activity is far richer, far more diverse, far more complex  and far more empowering than our old out-dated models of craft practice  suggest. There is a new economy in the making.” (Press and Cusworth, 1998)

It is not a coincidence that such practical curricula such as design and  technology have the lowest truancy rates. It is suggested that such a  curriculum connects with more young people by making the abstract  more concrete. For example, making jewelry involves practical hand craft and aesthetic skills, but it has also been pointed out that it involves  a knowledge of metallurgy, mathematical skills, calculations involving  temperature and volume - all linked to cultural skills (O’Connor, 2007;  Press, 2008; Design Commission 2011). 

Moreover, the role of apprenticeships in learning skills is increasingly  recognized. Apprenticeships have been found to produce staff who are of a  “higher quality” and are “more loyal … motivated and satisfied …  Apprenticeships reduce staff turnover”. Apprenticeships are also considered  ‘a key factor in cultivating capacity building and general transferable  competencies in young people’ (LSC, 2008; Skills Funding Agency 2018).

Research in the manufacturing industries has for some time been found craft  knowledge to be “a strategic resource … the contribution of crafts knowledge  and cognition as a means of stimulating innovation, of integrating expertise,  and of disseminating and stabilizing learning.” In evaluating a “company's  strategic and competitive gain. It is concluded that crafts knowledge may  constitute a powerful strategic design tool … a unique amalgamation of  cognitive, social and technical skills rather than a purely aesthetic  resource.” (Yair et al, 2001) Learning craft skills has also been found to  serve “as facilitator to collaborative new product development.”  (Yair et al, 1999)

Research by Sheffield Hallam University found that a curriculum rich in


manipulation of materials, creativity, experimentation and design is linked to  positive employment outcomes for craft-based students. The majority of these  graduates got jobs in the creative sector. The longitudinal study of job  destinations from ceramics, glass, fashion, textiles, jewelry, wood, metal and  plastics courses showed that 75% of employment is in applied art and design related fields. (Crafts Council, 1999).

In the study entitled From Learning to Earning, neither the author nor the Arts  Council of England were fully aware of the neuro-cognitive implications of  their assessments and recommendations for higher education, “In the  transition towards a digital future it is important that an experience of  tangible 3D qualities is maintained … Practical assignments develop visual  and three-dimensional skills and an understanding of materials and  processes. Courses are designed to encourage innovation and risk taking  and to build confidence.” (Burroughs, 2002)

This is part of a growing support for a practically oriented curricula which as  described in a DfES study bridge ‘the academic/vocational divide and  produce rounded, resourceful and free thinking citizens who are also  versatile in manual skills. There is hence a strong emphasis on  practical skills and an objection to the premature use of ICT which, it is  claimed, disempowers pupils through causing them to use computers  before they can fully understand the actions that are carried out.”  (Woods et al, 2005)

While the advantages of a practical skills-based education are  increasingly recognized, recent research indicates that the benefits are  more than just the product of the specific skills learned. “… it is evident  from the discussion above that process – the conditions, pedagogy,  relationships, etc. that frame student experience – cannot be neatly  separated from learning” (Woods et al, 2005) This conclusion is a  variation on the conclusion of other studies. For example, in addressing


“New paradigms for employability learning”, the Higher Education  Academy concluded “The new employability agenda for higher  education …requires an holistic approach … it is not appropriate to  separate employability-related projects from other learning and teaching  initiatives, rather they should - in line with employability thinking – integrate within the student learning experience.” (Higher Education  Academy, 2003) 

Recent advances in neuroscience and other fields are offering new  insights into how and why a practical skills education has wider benefits  than were previously expected.


Years later the importance of incorporating a more three-dimensional  component in education is being observed in the work place. Senior  engineers and car mechanics have noted that there has been a recent and  noticeable decline in the ability of junior engineers (at a major US  national scientific laboratory), and apprentice or work placement  mechanics to conceptualise straightforward mechanical problems. It has  been observed that while the young people concerned had more than enough  intelligence to do the work, they seemed to have missed certain areas of  cognitive development because “they hadn’t held a spanner or tinkered with a  simple engine”. (Wilson, 1999) These deficits have been seen as the first  signs of a software-instead-of-screwdriver-society and there are  neurological reasons why working with one’s own hands in a real-world 3-D  learning environment is imperative for full cognitive and development.

The vital role of using hands and tools appears to be deeply embedded in our  development not only as individuals but as a species. The evolution of the  hand—particularly the opposable thumb—was key to the success of early  humans. Without a precise grip, involving forceful opposition of thumb with  fingers, tool technology could not have emerged. (Skinner et al 2015)


And without a relationship between hand and tool we would not have  developed neurologically and intellectually to the extent that we have. Current  research in neuroscientific fields such as human paleoneurology conclude  that hand-tool relationships involve deeper cognitive levels that activate not only hand motor activity, but as a recent paper in Current Topics in  Behavioral Neurosciences states ‘body cognition, self-awareness, and the  ability to integrate tools into body schemes, extending the body’s functional  and structural range … our complex cognitive resources are based on the  capacity to export and delegate functions to external technological  components.’ (Bruner 2018; Bruner et al, 2018)

Craft Materials

The materials we work with have added further to our intellectual  development. Scientists writing in the Journal of Archaeological Method and  Theory entitled Materiality and Human Cognition’ pointed to the vital role  of ‘material forms whose interaction endowed our lineage with conceptual  thought and meta-awareness of conceptual domains.’ (Overmann & Wynn  2019a) In a further paper ‘On Tools Making Minds’ they propose ‘brain  functions may change in response to interactions with material forms, …  neurofunctional reorganization.’ (Overmann & Wynn 2019b)

Brain alterations

New research supports this. In the study ‘Tool use modulates somatosensory  cortical processing in humans’ to appear in Journal of Cognitive  Neuroscience, the researchers report ‘tool use leads to plastic [brain] changes in sensorimotor body representations’ (Miller et al 2019) Another study in  the Journal of Archaeological Science (2019) reports ‘Tool use particularly  influences the structure and functions of the parietal lobes [of the  brain]and tool training can be effective in this sense. In this process, the  hand plays a crucial role.’ (Silva-Gago et al 2019)

Psychosocial hands

In early years, watching others’ hand use and manipulating objects with one’s  own hands is associated with the development of social communication


skills. (Yu & Smith 2017) Interestingly, there may be an unexpected relationship between hands and mental health. A new psychiatric study in the  Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that ‘Lower grip strength may be a  causative factor in the risk of mental illness …Therefore, grip strength should  be given more focus in terms of resistance training programs.’ (Kim 2019)

The social brain

Several key overlapping brain networks and processes are related to social  skills. Empathy - consciously experiencing an emotional state that is the same  or very comparable to that of the person we are observing. Theory of mind - awareness we may have of another person’s mental state. Mirror neuron system - activated when we watch the actions of other people, influencing our  ability to understand the intentions and experiences of other people. (Bekkali  et al 2019; Alcalá-López et al 2018)

Using hands and tools such as those in craft activities may activate and  strengthen widely distributed, yet highly interactive, brain networks including  cognitive, perceptual social brain networks. This brain activation may occur  through observing and/or copying others (e.g. metal forging). 

Tool use seems to ‘integrate’ learning activity in a physiological way as if the  tool were our hand and its tips were our fingers. The brain's trick is to treat  tools as just another body part. When we learn to use a tool, our brain must  code brain cells not only to move our hand but also to make the tool  manipulate an object, a much more cognitively complex task. Tool use  involved in a practical skills education appears to ‘exercise’ the brain in a  variety of ways that go far beyond the capacities used for the specific task at  hand. Perhaps a ‘3-D’ lesson to be remembered in educational policy making  today. 

Impaired social function is a cardinal symptom of autism spectrum disorders.  As Professor Maria Urbano of Eastern Virginia Medical School describes it,  ‘What makes this important is you might have someone with a 125 or 130 IQ  who's unemployable" because of their social impairments’. (Urbano 2010) 

Social brain networks are disrupted in people with ASD. Yet social skills can  be improved in those with ASD through for example training (McLeod Et al 2015; Hopainen et al 2019) Interestingly, recent cell transplantation  therapies in children with ASD are now reported to be followed by increased  white matter connections in brain networks and increased ‘social functioning  and communication abilities’. (Siniscalco & Antonucci 2019)

The integrated practical skills therapeutic education advanced by the  RMT may, in effect, be providing a greater degree of stimulation to the  social brain networks of young people. And this may underlie the  conclusion of the Ofsted inspection report mentioned above, stating that  students ‘cooperate successfully with their peers; their communication skills  improve significantly and they become able to speak with greater confidence  in different situations and with unfamiliar people.’ (Ofsted RMC 2015)


Even in a computer-driven world, these 3-D practical skills are an integral part  of the most cutting edge international space-age technologies. The  International Space Station (ISS), a joint collaboration between America,  Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and Brazil, is the most expensive object ever  assembled by mankind: a £70billion structure The design, development and  construction of the Space Station are dependent on a profound  understanding of the three-dimensional real world, along with skills of  classic hand use of tools. And it is still dependent on these skills both inside  the station and out. Recently, the crew the ISS carried out the 219th  spacewalk since assembly of the outpost began in order to change 2 batteries  – each ‘about half the size of a refrigerator’. Astronauts and cosmonauts have  now spent 57.3 days, working outside the orbiting complex. The entire project  relies on highly educated astronaut 'mechanics' hanging precariously 250 miles above the Earth working on the exterior components of the ISS as it  hurtles through space at 17,000mph. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that  newspapers react to photographs of routine maintenance with headlines such  as “Just don't drop the spanner.” (Pearlman 2019)

Albert Einstein stated, “Learning is experiencing. Everything else is just  information,” suggesting that we must “experience” learning by utilizing our  numerous (not just five) sensory systems. Human beings have an innate need  to see, touch, taste, feel, and hear (experience) the features of any new object  in order to understand it better.

Most human beings find learning easiest when they begin a learning  experience with a hands-on, minds-on activity. At nearly all stages of life, one  learns a great deal about our environment (objects, another person, etc.) via  our universal human preference “to touch to learn” more about an object.  While touching an object, most higher order mammals will also turn it, twist it,  view it from a number of other positions, etc., as a means of drawing out the  most meaningful clues, cues, and relevant information needed for arriving at  conclusions concerning the object. Teenagers and young adults learn in the  same way.


A clear example of this process can be observed in the ‘whole-body’ learning  involved in the process of making copper ware. [This author underwent a  tutorial and subjectively confirmed the need to use a variety of cognitive and  perceptual skills, groups of fine muscles while allocating sustained attention to  the task at hand.]

The decline in a more practical hands-on component to curricula is clearly  cited as a reason for the “Declining Interest in Engineering Studies at a Time  of Increased Business Need” (Johnson & Jones, 2006). This major study  found “The numbers of students studying engineering have declined in recent  years, both in the United States and in Western European countries.” This  trend is apparent in the UK (Engineering UK 2018). The above study identifies  the problem of abstract concepts being taught without “putting this preparatory  work in the context of engineering applications. This is typically followed by  challenging engineering science courses– but often with little applied  experience to bring into the classroom for motivation.” The authors asked,  “What can be done in education?” They pointed to the National Academy of  Engineering (2005) which recommended more practically-based curricula and  that colleges “Make the curriculum more user-friendly e.g., concentrate on  how to learn rather than trying to cover everything in an intense four year  curriculum ... substitute active learning for formal lectures.”


The Assessment of Children's Hand Skills is a recent assessment designed  for use with 2- to 12-year-old children with a range of learning difficulties and  developmental delay including ASD. It utilises a naturalistic observational  method to capture children's real-life hand skill performance when engaged at  various types of daily activities in everyday living contexts (Chien et al 2012;  2014). Hand skill performance is seen by some as having clinical applications  for ASD both in terms of assessing ASD and offering a therapeutic route to  improvement.


Another way to consider the benefits of practical skills-based activities is by  looking at the primal and central role of hands in learning and creation, and  our evolution and survival. New thinking in evolutionary neurophysiology is 

suggesting that the emergence of human cognitive abilities may be the result  of physical hand movements and tool use, enabling brain pathways to  develop that helped language develop, with some believing that language was  originally gestural. Research recently published in Nature’s Scientific  Reports was entitled ‘Teaching to make stone tools: new experimental  evidence supporting a technological hypothesis for the origins of language’ (Lombao et al 2018) The specific role of the hands in the development of  human language is of increasing interest to neuroscientists. A new paper in  Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews is self-explanatory ‘Connection  between movements of mouth and hand: Perspectives on development and  evolution of speech’. (Vainio 2019)

New research has also found that young children instinctively use a  ‘language-like’ structure to communicate through hand gestures and that  ‘typically developing young children spontaneously organize their gestural  communication systems into more segmented and linear forms.’ Children’s  gestures were found to segment information and reorganise it into language like sequences. (Clay et al 2014) 

There are many parallels between tool use, hand movements and language  for recognition, imitation and gestural communication, (learning and social  behaviour) suggesting that they rely partially on large, common brain  networks. Human speech and language could have evolved by co-opting  neurophysiological mechanisms involved in the organisation of manipulative  hand actions (Steele et al, 2012).

It is proposed that the abstract cognitive functions of the brain’s inferior  parietal cortex in humans derive from an expansion of brain areas originally  involved in computing sensorimotor transformations for hand use.  Furthermore, tool use is thought to lead quite literally to the learned  incorporation of the tool into the body schema: the tool becomes an extension of one’s own body and novel mental functions that are detached  from body constraints – i.e. thinking outside the body (Iriki & Taoka 2012).

Frank R. Wilson, a neurologist at the University of California School of  Medicine has written a great deal on the use of the hand ‘Shapes the Brain,  Language, and Human Culture’ Wilson considers the hand as a  ‘musculoskeletal organism’ emphasising the centrality to intelligence of our  human hand and how crucial the manipulation of the hands is to  cognitive learning. The hand should not be regarded as a mere ‘appendix’,  but rather, a fundamental part of the way we create. (Wilson, 2005ab; 2010) 

The human hand is a highly evolved mechanism responsible for the high level  of adaptation and survival in humans. The hands are particularly sensitive  to perceiving and transmitting exceedingly sophisticated information to  the brain (Bensmaia et al, 2008) This is why Braille is not read using one’s  forearms or feet. The hands are heavily over-represented in many different  areas of the brain. For example, there is a large area of cortex devoted to  sensation in the hands, while the back has a much smaller area. 

The inter-relationship between the hand and brain constitutes an integrated  system, which seems genetically programmed. The learning brain receives high levels of vital information through the sensations and movements  of the hands (Bobich et al, 2007). In fact, research on 10-week-old foetuses  indicates that nerve connections from the hands to the brain may develop  before the connections that allow the brain to control the hands. And the  foetus’s hand movements appear to influence the way the brain  physically develops in the womb (Hepper & Wells, 2005; Hepper 2013).  Thereafter as young adults, hand movements and brain activity are powerfully  joined-up creating a ‘movement profile’. Elements of hand use such as  movement velocity, direction and mode of coordination in craft activities  are reflected in ‘robust’ brain activity (Fuchs et al, 2000). Sequential  finger movements activate massive regions involved in thinking, language and  working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing  information.


Haptic processing

One of the key processes underlying the kinaesthetic somatic component of a practical skills therapeutic education could be described as haptic perception - the process of recognizing objects through touch. In addition to the four kinds  of mechanoreceptors there are also other receptors that provide information

about sensory inputs from the hand. These include receptors specialized for  pain (two kinds), temperature (two kinds), itch (one kind) and four kinds  located in the muscles, tendons and joints that provide information about body  position, movement and force. Together these afferents provide a rich  multidimensional brain image of the size, shape, texture, and temperature of  objects that we hold and manipulate with our hands. There are 13 different  kinds of hand-to-brain nerve fibers each with specialized receptor endings that  allow them to encode information about different sensory activity from the  hand. Eight of the 13 provide information that is important for haptic  perception; four of these provide information about discriminative touch and  four provide information about body position and movement. This is thought to  culminate in a dynamic representation in the brain of the spatio-temporal  profile of stimuli in contact with the skin along with a dynamic representation  of the positions, movements, and forces of our limbs, digits and joints.  (Hsiao & Yau 2008)

At a time when there is increasing emphasis on visual information and  processing in communication and learning, it is important not to forget the role  of haptic processing. In reviewing 'The neural basis of haptic object  processing' researchers believe 'Like vision, haptic processing pathways are  organized into a hierarchy of processing stages, with different stages  represented by different brain areas.' (James et al 2007)

Other researchers examine haptic memory, used regularly in crafts or  practical skills learning when assessing the necessary forces for gripping and  interacting with familiar objects. Haptic memory may also influence a student's  interactions with novel objects of an apparently similar size and density. As  with haptic perception, there are strong links between the visual and the


haptic: 'a variety of similarities between visual and haptic object recognition  suggests that the two modalities may share common representations…. and  indicate that crossmodal memory for objects must be at least partly based on  common perceptual representations.” (Craddock & Lawson R 2009)

There is a growing interest in ‘goal-directed hand movements’ and brain  function and repair. (Edwards et al 2019) Motor skill learning induces actual  structural and functional changes in the brain (Kleim et al., 2004; Rosenkranz  et al. 2007a). This hand-to-brain relationship is so strong that the journal of  the American Academy of Neurology reported that hand stimulation can be  used to therapeutically improve brain function in adults (Rosenkranz et al,  2008).

A further study published in the Journal of Neuroscience involved a  collaboration between the Institute of Neurology, and London Hand Therapy  Centre. It is believed that disordered motor control in musician's dystonia is a  consequence of the disordered sensorimotor organisation (SMO) in the  brain’s motor cortex. Subjects in the study who underwent proprioceptive  hand stimulation training exhibited 'restored SMO towards that seen in healthy  pianists. Crucially, motor control of the affected task improved significantly'.  (Rosenkranz et al 2009) A systematic review on 'The effectiveness of  proprioceptive training for improving motor function' published in Frontiers in  Human Neuroscience reported 'a mean improvement rate of 26%' for healthy adults. Regarding the therapeutic application, the authors report 'In summary,  therapeutic success through proprioceptive training was achieved in a variety  of neurological and orthopedic diseases. … it is apparent that proprioceptive  training can be beneficial for rehabilitation of neurological based injury such  as stroke, Parkinson’s disease and dystonia, and also for musculoskeletal  conditions.' In explaining the improvements, the authors conclude 'In  summary, there is increasing evidence that proprioceptive training is  associated with reorganization within the [brain's] sensorimotor cortex and  supplementary motor area.’ (Aman et al 2015)

Using the hands for arts and crafts does more than merely stimulate brain  areas that control hand and arm movements. Using Functional Magnetic


Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain of a skilled portrait artist and  of a non-artist as each draws a series of faces, neuroscientists reported “a  discernible increase in blood flow in the right-posterior parietal region of the  brain for both the artist and non-artist during the task, a site normally  associated with facial perception and processing.” (Solso, 2001)

Recently, a number of studies have gone on to examine how different ways of  using the hands may have profound effects on how individuals think. For  example, writing, rather than typing, activates different parts of the brain.  Children express more and better ideas writing in cursive as opposed to typing. More of the areas of the brain associated with memory formation are  activated when writing than when typing. This appears to have  consequences. Research at Princeton recently published a group of studies  entitled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand  Over Laptop Note Taking and reported that 'even when laptops are used  solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use  results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who  took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than  students who took notes longhand … detrimental to learning … even when  allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken  notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and  conceptual understanding'. (Mueller & Oppenheimer 2014)

One reason for this may be the type of brain activation evoked by manual  handwriting rather than typing. And writing, because it is slower and more  effortful, requires one to process information more deeply. Several  researchers have suggested that writing in cursive and printing also involve  different brain processes which in turn may lead to different forms of thought.  Many of the curriculum activities contained in the Ruskin Mill approach of  practical skills therapeutic education require hand use facilities such as  estimation, adjustment, fine motor skills, spatial ability and imagination.  These processes may lead to different ways of thinking and therefore have a  transferrable quality to other areas of intellectual and professional  development.


Playing with toys like blocks and puzzles has been reported to foster the  development of strong spatial abilities. Strong spatial abilities predict better  math skills. Deciding whether a block goes over or under another block, or  whether it is aligned or perpendicular to it, are precisely the kinds of skills that  support later learning in science, technology, engineering and math These  spatial abilities help us learn math and science. Learning practical skills such  as crafts has very similar functions. Children from a lower socio-economic  background are already falling behind in math skills areas by 3 and 4 years of  age. Researchers now believe that this achievement gap may be narrowed  considerably by increasing children’s experience in spatial assembly by  playing with blocks and similar physical toys i.e. practical skills activities.  (Verdine et al, 2013, 2014)

The underlying processes with playing with blocks and toys may be the same  described in the research on writing by hand. Using hands requires the  development of particular areas of the brain. This applies when humans are  learning to use a tool, like our ancestors wielding an axe, when learning to  play piano, to write, or to sew or play with blocks. One of the educational  benefits of replacing some screen-based activities with doing something that  requires greater flexibility in the way people use their hands is that it also  requires greater flexibility in how they use their brains which may lead to  brains developing in novel ways. With this in mind, the American Academy  of Pediatrics has just issued a Clinical Report ‘Selecting Appropriate Toys for  Young Children in the Digital Era’ in which they referred to ‘digital media– based virtual “toys” ‘being ‘incorrectly perceived by caregivers as having  educational benefit.’ (AAP 2019)

It is now thought that only by manipulating real objects in real space, that an  evolutionary imperative is satisfied. And this is why ‘hands-on’ exploration  seems critical for the development of understanding and inventiveness.

Wilson (above) concludes that “People suffer when they separate themselves  from the world of real objects, or from their instinctive responses to particular


objects, materials or tools in their own hands.” He is concerned by a shift in  educational policies, which reduces the role of working with hands and  removes woodwork, metalwork, music or car mechanics from the educational  curriculum. Two decades ago he stated, “We have begun a huge educational  experiment without knowing any of the consequences.” Subsequent research  by others now gives him license to say, “I told you so”. (Wilson, 1999)


On a daily basis, an integrated practical skills therapeutic education involves a  great deal of general body movement and physical activity. And as is the case  with hand movement and tool use, general body movement and physical  activity may have profound cognitive and intellectual implications for students.

24-hour Movement Behaviours

Scientists studying physical activity and sedentary behaviour in young people  are now adamant that the way they spend their time over a 24-hour period  has important health and development implications. (Tremblay et al 2016abc)  However, we need to reconceptualise how physical activity, sedentary  behaviours, sleep and discretionary screen time (DST) affect young people’s  health and development outcomes.

Scientists increasingly refer to a combination or “cocktail” of movement  behaviours associated with desirable indicators of health. There is an  emerging view that behaviours, both active and inactive, occur along a  ‘movement continuum’ (i.e., physical activity, sedentary behaviour, sleep).  Until recently these behaviours and their relationships with various health  indicators have largely been considered in isolation of one another, yet they  interact such that their combined effects extend beyond the individual  contributions of each behaviour. There are now calls for an integrated  approach to understand and promote movement behaviours. (Carson et al  2016, Tremblay et al 2016abc; Biddel et al 2018) Movement behaviours are  especially important in children and young people with ASD, ADHD and


mental health problems. An integrated practical skills therapeutic education  lends itself to a more favourable balance of 24-hour movement behaviours  and contributes further.


It is known that people with ASD and ADHD may not sleep as well as those  without. There is new evidence that people with ASD may have a mutated  SHANK3 gene which influences our body clock and sleep patterns. Ingiosi et  al (2019) recently reported that ‘people who are missing SHANK3 frequently  have trouble falling asleep and wake up many times each night.’ At the same  time sleep deprivation is found to play a significant role in both ASD and  ADHD. A review in the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (2014) concluded ‘it is highly plausible that sleep deficits play a leading role in the  symptoms seen in ASD including the exacerbation of challenging  behaviors.’ (Cohen.S et al 2014) A new study on ‘symptom severity in adults  with ADHD’ in European Psychiatry found that ‘poor sleep quality was found  to exacerbate mind wandering leading to ADHD symptoms.’ (Helfer et al,  2019)

Both ASD and ADHD often occur with mental health problems, and sleep  deprivation is now thought to be a causative factor in some mental  disorders. For example, a study of adolescents found that ‘sleep deprivation  has a strong effect on risk for major depression’. (Roberts & Duong 2014) Another study in Nature: Genetics ‘identified the causal effects of insomnia on  depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease’. (Jansen et al 2019) A study in Lancet: psychiatry by the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford  University found ‘strong evidence that insomnia is a causal factor in the  occurrence of psychotic experiences and other mental health  problems’. (Freeman et al 2017) The way the effects above may manifest themselves in young people was recently addressed by a study of the ‘Dose Dependent Associations Between Sleep Duration and Unsafe Behaviors  Among [67,147] US High School Students’ appearing in the Journal American  Medical Association: Pediatrics in which those getting less than 8hrs sleep  had the ‘strongest associations … with mood and self-harm' … multiple public


health concerns, including mental health, substance abuse'. Those young  people getting less than 6hrs sleep were ‘more than 4 times as likely to report  an attempted suicide that resulted in treatment’. The authors concluded that  ‘Insufficient sleep has pervasive consequences’. (Weaver et al 2018)

Sleep is also a prerequisite to learning. A recent study of university students’  performance on their final exam found that those who slept 8 hours or more  performed better than students who slept 7.9 hours or less, even after  controlling for their pre exam grades. (Skullin 2018)

The growing links between evening/night-time discretionary screen time and sleep deprivation and body clock disruption may be partly explained by the  way screens, particularly smartphones and tablets held close to the eyes  particularly in bed, may reduce the amount and quality of sleep. Most screens  emit blue light, which confuses the brain into responding to what it perceives  as daytime sunlight. As a result, the brain’s pineal gland then reduces the  normal production of the sleep hormone melatonin, thereby disrupting sleep. A therapeutic practical skills education minimises such screen exposure  during the day which is helpful in not contributing to this problem. (Green et al  2017; van der Meijden et al 2019) Furthermore, as sleep affects the degree of  daily movement and the amount of daily movement affects sleep, a  therapeutic practical skills education supports both of these 24-hour  movement behaviours.

Students have the following sleep requirements:

14 – 17 years: 8 - 10 hours

18 – 26 years: 7 – 9 hours


Children with neuro-developmental behavioural intellectual disorders  (NDBIDs) such as ASD, and ADHD often exhibit behaviour contrary to what  has been described as engaging in purposeful physical pursuits.


Many of these NDBIDs appear in children in industrialized countries where  physical activity levels have already reached historical lows.

It is also recognised that children with NDBIDs often show significant delay  and/or problems in motor coordination – combined movements of more than  one part of the body. These deficits in movement ability in turn have been  linked to a range of secondary outcomes including lower participation in sport,  less physical activity, and the associated consequences of a generally low movement lifestyle (e.g., obesity, Type 2 diabetes, poor physical fitness).  Children with ASD and ADHD often meet the criteria for Developmental  coordination disorder (DCD) showing significant impairments in movement.  The occurrence of movement and attentional difficulties together is  considered by some to be the rule not the exception in children with NDBIDs.  (Dudley et al 2016; Pushkarenko 2019)

A practical skills curriculum does not involve the high proportion of  sedentary time occurring in most school and college learning  environments and there may be unexpected benefits to this. It is  important to point out that being insufficiently physically active is not the same  thing as being sedentary. While neither in excess is considered healthy, the  biological consequences leading to bad health appear to be different. 

Being ‘physically inactive’ means not doing enough physical activity. However,  being ‘sedentary’ means sitting or lying down for long periods during waking  hours. Scientists now believe that each have their own distinct health  consequences, and need to be addressed separately. (ADH 2017; Lynch et al  2010; Biddel et al 2018) And so it’s possible for a young person to engage in  an acceptable level of physical activity but at the same time spend an  inordinate amount of time sitting. 

Sedentary behaviour is now linked with poorer mental health. A study in  Perspectives in Psychiatric Care reports ‘as sitting hours increased, students’


stress, anxiety, and depression significantly increased despite controlling for’  other possible factors. (Lee et al 2018). Public Health England recently  warned ‘people who are inactive have 3 times the rate of moderate to severe  depression of active people.’

Sedentary behaviour e.g. ‘sitting hours’ is also directly related to ‘all-cause  mortality’ in a dose-response manner – the higher the ‘dose’ of sitting, the  higher the ‘hazard’

‘Exercise’ especially ‘vigorous’ exercise has been promoted for some time  while the health benefits of standing and light-intensity activity have been


overlooked. This oversight is now of interest to those in epidemiology and  public health studying the ‘potential yield of non-exercise physical activity’. (Smith et al 2015) A practical skills curriculum contains a high degree of  non-exercise physical activity as well as standing more as opposed to  sitting.

Physical movement is increasingly linked with a reduction in  problematic behaviours commonly seen in ASD and an improvement in  social functioning. New research is finding that ‘physical activity influences  social functioning and should be considered ‘a viable intervention option to  target some of the primary concerns associated with ASD … interventions  educating young people with ASD about how to engage in physical activity  may enhance quality of life’. (Reinders et al 2019) A study in Pediatrics and  Neonatology refers to physical activity as ‘a therapeutic option … also for  improving social skills … also had positive effects on social interaction in  children with ASD.’ (Najafabadi et al 2018) Other medical studies such as  ‘The Effects of Exercise Dose on Stereotypical Behavior in Children with  Autism’ are more specific in their measurement of physical activity concluding  that ‘low- to moderate-intensity exercise produces significant and large  reductions in these behaviors.’ (Schmitz Schmitz et al 2017)

Depression is a fairly common diagnosis in children and adolescents with  autism. It may be harder to recognize due to communication deficits, and the  symptoms of depression may compound the interpersonal difficulties that  young people with ASD already experience. (DeFilippis 2018) The World  Health Organisation recently stated ‘individuals who are more active have  lower rates of depression’, a recurring theme in new mental health research. (WHO 2018) A study in Pediatrics reported that ‘increasing moderate to  vigorous physical activity in children at the population level may prevent  depression’. (Zahl 2017) Although sport participation is not a formal part of a  practical skills curriculum it’s worth noting that it’s found to predict ‘greater  reductions in depressive symptoms, social anxiety symptoms and loneliness  in adolescents’ and ‘represents a protective factor that supports psychological  resilience in at-risk youth.’ (Brière 2018)


There are new insights into how movement may help buffer young people  from the effects of anxiety and stress. A study in the journal Anxiety, Stress  and Coping found that people who walked prior to being put under  ‘psychosocial stress’ produced lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol  while under stress. Furthermore, fitter people put under the same stress also  produce lower levels of cortisol while under stress. (Wood et al 2018)

The need to move has a long history. Five hundred million years ago the  nervous system first enabled coordinated movement allowing an organism to  find food, instead of waiting for the food to come to it. Yet, today, lack of  movement is literally killing us and it’s been predicted that a new generation  will die younger than their parents due to a lack of movement. One of the  most dangerous activities in our day could be lurking right below us. (See  Figure 3 below)

Studies increasingly find that sitting for prolonged periods of time is linked with  many negative outcomes. Numerous, well-designed studies continue to find a  highly significant association between sedentary time and risk of type 2  diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and all-cause mortality. (Patterson et  al 2018) In addressing ‘preventing cancer’ the World Cancer Research Fund  states: ‘We have strong evidence that being active reduces the risk of three  cancers’. (WCRF 2019) The practical skills curriculum does not involve  the high proportion of sedentary time occurring in most arenas of  school and college learning thereby mitigating these detrimental effects.

In our culture, movement has been consigned to a history of more primitive  times. In education, movement is associated with ‘vocations’, crafts or  recreation such as sports or dance. And physical development has  traditionally been considered as something ‘apart’ from other areas of  learning.

However, new research shows that we can’t shake off our physical past if we  want our young people to have an intellectual future and employment.  Movement is inextricably linked to brain development that goes far beyond  mere hand-eye coordination. Our evolution and preeminence as a species  were the result of it. While society’s main concern is young obesity, new  research indicates that physical activity (PA) may yet be the key to reducing  pupils’ waist size whilst literally increasing their brain size along with their


school achievement. Moreover, physical movement skills are increasingly  thought to be linked to academic and intellectual performance. Physical  development affects many components of a child’s development for example  in language and communication, yet the process doesn’t appear to work the  other way round. 

Physical Literacy is described as the mastering of fundamental movement  skills and fundamental sport skills that permit a child to read their environment  and make appropriate decisions, allowing them to move confidently and with  control in a wide range of physical activity situations. The Canadian  government states ‘Just as kids need to develop their reading and writing  literacy, they also need to develop their physical literacy.’ (Government of  Alberta 2015)

A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that poor  motor performance was linked to poor academic skills in children’s first school  years. ( al 2014) Previous research at the University of Auckland  examined perceptual motor programs (PMP) in education involving the  integration of sensory input (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) with fine or  gross motor responses. The general opinion of all judges involved was that  encorporating this more holistic PMP element in education ‘builds on  competency in foundation skills for new entrant children that are critical to  ensuring a readiness to learn and overall success at school… exhibiting  behaviour conducive to learning. Social confidence when interacting with  peers and adults … there is an impact on engagement with learning and  behaviour.’ (Pieri 2011)

Autistic children with better motor skills have been found to be more adept at  socializing and better at "daily living skills," such as talking, playing, walking,  and requesting things from their parents. Research involving Cornell  University’s Medical College concluded that ‘fine and gross motor skills are  significantly related to adaptive behavior skills in young children with autism  spectrum disorder.’ When addressing how to implement early intervention and  rehabilitation for young children with autism, the authors believe ‘motor skills


need to be a part of the discussion.’ The author’s added ‘"Motor skills are  embedded in everything we do, and for too long they have been studied  separately from social and communication skills in children with autism …  Motor skills and autism have been separated for too long.” (MacDonald et al  2013ab) Others add ‘early motor abilities in young children with ASD can have  longitudinal cross-domain influences’. (Bedford et al 2016)

Movement and brain development

A new systematic review ‘The Impact of Physical Activity on Brain Structure  and Function in Youth has been published by the American Academy of  Pediatrics journal Pediatrics, concluding ‘participation in physical activity may  modify white matter integrity and activation of regions key to cognitive  processes.’ Similarly, a recent study in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that  ‘physical activity increases white matter microstructure in children … plays a  role in cognition and behavior.’ (Chaddock-Heyman et al 2018)

A previous study published in Brain Research found an association between  physical fitness and brain anatomy in children: Those who were more  physically fit tended to have a bigger hippocampus - about 12 percent bigger  relative to total brain size -- and perform better on a test of memory than their  less-fit peers. The hippocampus is important in learning and memory and a  bigger hippocampus is associated with better performance on spatial  reasoning and other cognitive tasks. (Chaddock et al 2010)

And the brain v brawn issue takes another twist. In a recent study ‘Adolescent  Changes in Aerobic Fitness Are Related to Changes in Academic  Achievement’ the scientists concluded that ‘these findings highlight the  importance of physical activity and have broad relevance for educational  systems and policies.’ (Raine et al 2018) A new review in the Journal of  Clinical Medicine concluded that ‘exercise can improve cognitive performance  intimately linked to ADHD’ in children with and without ADHD. (Christiansen et al 2019)


Research on how PA actually changes our neurobiology is becoming more specific including epigenetic and neuroplastic brain alterations. (Victorino et al  2017; Fernandes et al 2017) PA is thought to help a child’s cognitive  processing by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain, increasing levels  of norepinephrine and endorphins to decrease stress and improve mood, and  increasing growth factors that help create new nerve cells and support the  connections between brain cell synapses which are at the basis of learning. 

Researchers continue to echo the sentiment: ‘We hope that this research will  encourage public health and educational changes that will promote a  physically active lifestyle in children.’ (Chaddock et al 2012)

And so the ‘whole-body’ learning of a practical skills therapeutic education  seamlessly keeps young people moving and physically active. This is in stark  contrast to a trend of children elsewhere exhibiting record levels of sedentary  behaviour and a deficiency in basic fundamental movement skills. (Hardy et al  2013; Tester et al 2014; Eather et al 2018; Sigman 2019a)

The physical activity taking place within the woodland ecology,  gardening, horticulture and farming components of integrated practical  skills therapeutic education may afford additional benefits. A new  systematic review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and  Public Health concluded that there are ‘social benefits associated with  physical activity in nature. … physical health, mental health and wellbeing,  education and life-long learning, active citizenship, crime-reduction, and anti social behavior as well as additional benefits.’ (Eigenschenk et al 2019)


Craft based activities have been employed clinically to improve cognitive  functioning and peripheral symptoms in patients with mild to moderate senile  dementia of Alzheimer type (Fumiko, 2005). Crafts have also employed under  the classification of 'diversional therapy'. In Australia, this approach has it's  origins in the 1940's when craft based activities were found by the Red Cross


to be integral to the rehabilitation of servicemen and women “to ameliorate  the sufferings of those who have become casualties, whether military or  civilian"(Butler, 2000; Australian Red Cross, 2008a)

Craft-based activities were then applied to improve the cognitive  functioning and quality of life of nursing home residents. "A 1967 pilot study,  introduced diversional therapy ... Although the study was completed in three  months, the programmes continued because of their proven value … For  many years the Australian Red Cross trained practitioners. The National  Fitness Council and New South Wales department for Sport and Recreation  also provided recreation training …"(DTAA, 2003). Survivors of natural  disasters have shown considerable benefit from craft-based activities which  seem to work as 'diversional therapy' as well as giving the individual a sense  of control over what they are doing which has a general effect of increasing  the person's locus of control. Again this 'diversional therapy' has become an  integral part of the Red Cross's regional development. (Australian Red Cross,  2008ab)

Physicians and exercise physiologists have employed craft activities to  enhance athletic performance. The National Team Doctor noted that  members of the of the German football team would “lie around and watch TV  between training sessions, their mind assuming an almost vegetative state."  To "increase their mental creativity" they were asked by the Team Doctor to  study new languages and do handcrafts, between training sessions at the  World Cup. "The results were outstanding. Modestly talented German teams  advanced to the World Cup final in 1986 and 1990. When we build a training  program, we have to consider the brain as well as the body." (Seiler, 1996,  2008)


Woodland ecology, gardening, horticulture and farming - while educational  subjects in their own right - are increasingly found to positively affect cognitive  functioning, academic performance, obesity and physical and mental health in


young people. Mainstream science and medicine have taken an interest in a  variety of unexpected effects linked to exposing young people to greenery and  involving them in ecology, gardening, horticulture and farming. The academic  fields of environmental medicine and ecopsychology have overlapped with  preventative medicine to produce fascinating studies. 

A growing body of evidence is now linking contact with nature with significant  physical, mental, behavioural and intellectual benefits. For example, a large  team of scientists has just published a major international evidence review on  ‘nature and mental health’ for the American Association for the Advancement  of Science concluding with the consensus statement:

‘Evidence supports an association between common types of nature  experience and a reduction of risk factors and burden of some types of mental  illness … and increased psychological well-being’. (Bratman et al 2019)

ADHD and Attention

Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are  better able to concentrate with a reduction in symptoms after contact with  nature (Taylor et al. 2001; Taylor & Kuo 2011). The same is true of people  without ADHD. But how can something as mundane as a tree or a flowerbed  or grass exert any biological and cognitive effects on young students? One  main area of interest is the effect of nature on one's ability to pay sustained  attention

Some scientists now report that modern activities and situations involving  prolonged or intense use of our attention cause an attentional ‘fatigue’ to set  in. Interestingly a study in the American Journal of Public Health reports that  in modern societies ‘ becomes increasingly difficult to pay attention and  inhibit impulses; that is, the behavior and performance of individuals without  ADHD temporarily take on many of the characteristic patterns of ADHD’. (Kuo  and Taylor, 2004)


The American Journal of Public Health Study has found that exposing children  with ADHD to outdoor greenery was linked with a significant reduction in their  symptoms. The scientists evaluated the effects of 49 after-school or weekend  activities conducted in green outdoor settings versus those conducted in both  built outdoor and indoor settings. The results were highly impressive. And the 

effect was consistent across age, gender, socioeconomic status, and type of  community, geographic region and diagnosis. In fact, the greener the setting,  the greater the reduction in symptoms. The researchers also pointed to  ‘substantial research conducted’ among people without ADHD showing that  inattention and impulsivity are reduced after exposure to green natural views  and settings (Taylor, et al 2001). Similar findings continued to appear a  decade later. Taylor and Kuo (2011) examined whether routine exposures to  green space, experienced through children's everyday play settings, might  yield ongoing reductions in ADHD symptoms. The answer appeared to be  yes: ‘everyday play settings make a difference in overall symptom severity in  children with ADHD. Specifically, children with ADHD who played regularly in  green play settings have milder symptoms than children who play in built  outdoor and indoor settings. This is true for all income groups and for both  boys and girls.’

So, a growing number of researchers now believe that, for most of us, being  exposed to greenery has general, widespread benefits for our ability to pay  attention. Studies report ‘superior attentional functioning’ and that ‘the effect of  nature on inattention is robust’. (Taylor, et al 2001; Taylor & Kuo 2011) 

A new paper in the Yale Journal of Biology & Medicine considers regular  exposure to nature as a prerequisite: ‘the attention system, [is] designed for  interacting with nature’. The authors emphasise the ‘solution of restoring  attention through exposure to nature, one can only wonder why we spend so  little time outdoors in nature.’ (White & Shah 2019). 

Improved attention from outdoor exposure may play a role in evidence of  improved learning. A new study conducted by the Department of  Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London asked ‘can an


outdoor learning environment improve children’s academic attainment?  Children were taught maths and science indoors vs outdoors and it was  Outdoors that was ‘associated with higher levels of academic attainment’.  (Khan et al 2019)

A scientific review recently published in Frontiers in Psychology ‘Do  Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a  Cause-and-Effect Relationship’ reported that ‘nature-based instruction  outperforms traditional instruction. The evidence here is particularly strong … It is time to take nature seriously as a resource for learning – particularly for  students not effectively reached by traditional instruction.’ (Kuo et al  2019)

The explanations seem to revolve around the way greenery effortlessly  engages one’s attention, allowing one to attend without paying attention. The  information-processing demands of everyday life including electronic media,  mobile telephones, increasing consumer and 'lifestyle choices' and associated  decisions – take their toll on young people's intellectual and emotional  resources. They increasingly pay attention to more than one thing at a time – ‘multitasking’ – and are encouraged to do so. This modern life causes a  temporary ‘attention fatigue’ which is corrected when our underlying attention  system has an opportunity to rest. And natural green environments help in  recovery from this attention fatigue, in part because they engage our mind  effortlessly. So the sense of rejuvenation we often experience after spending  time in natural settings may in part reflect a ‘recharging’ of some parts of our  attentional system. This is the basis of Attentional Restoration Theory  (Kaplan, 1995) suggesting that the natural environment disengages attention - nature offers ‘soft fascination’ - holding one’s attention but leaving ample  opportunity to think about other things. 

While there may be clinical benefits of attentional restoration in cases of  ADHD the effects of exposure to nature apply to young people in general in a  wide variety of ways. For example, self-discipline requires a child’s attention.  So when their attentional system becomes tired their self-discipline declines,


but when their attention is revived by exposure to greenery, their self discipline improves again (Taylor et al. 2001).

The attentional benefits of contact with nature interact and overlap with other  factors. In addition to the attentional restoration that may have been derived,  through watching the development of their plant, children learn caring,  responsibility and the ability to defer gratification by thinking in the longer  term. Gardening enables you to focus on one thing – a live plant –and to gain  a sense of control and completion by doing one thing well – planting and  caring for it. 

Clinical and Therapeutic Benefits

Stress is now a significant factor influencing health and life span. And  spending time amongst greenery is now associated with reduced stress. 

Scientists are now working out exactly what exposure to nature may do to us biologically that may reduce stress and improve health. In a new study  researchers measured the exact ‘duration of a nature experience and  changes in two physiological biomarkers of stress’: the stress hormone  cortisol and another stress-related compound alpha- amylase. They found  that for each hour people were exposed to nature there was a subsequent ‘21.3% per hour drop’ in their cortisol levels and a ‘28.1% per hour drop’ in  their alpha- amylase levels. (See Figure 4: minutes of nature exposure and  drop in cortisol; Figure 5: minutes of nature exposure and drop in alpha amylase, from Hunter et al 2019)

Additional biological mechanisms which may explain the link between nature  exposure and better human health include ‘enhanced immune functioning  emerges as one promising candidate for a central pathway between nature  and health.’ (Kuo 2015) 

The subgenual prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain associated with a self focused behavioural withdrawal linked to rumination. A study in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that a brief nature  experience ‘decreases both self- reported rumination and neural activity in the  subgenual prefrontal cortex’, whereas a similar walk in an urban setting ‘has  no such effects’. (Bratman et al 2015)

Exposure to nature and the countryside is becoming a serious approach to  preventing and treating both mental and physical illness. 

‘Doses’ of greenery

A new study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences concluded  that ‘high levels of green space presence during childhood are associated  with lower risk of a wide spectrum of psychiatric disorders later …Green  space can provide mental health benefits’. (Engemann et al. 2019)

Biology journals such as BioScience are becoming more specific on the  matter with studies such as ‘Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for  Mental Health’ finding a “lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress  … significantly lower’. (Cox 2017) Another BioScience study ‘Impact of Nature  on Mental Well-Being in Real Time’ concluded ‘the benefits of nature on  mental well-being are time-lasting’. (Barkolis et al.2018)

Large scale studies appearing in the Canadian Journal of Public Health (2017) report ‘Children who spent more time outdoors were less likely to have  peer relationship problems and had better psychosocial health.’ (Larouche et  al 2016; 2017)


Another new study of 20,000 people published in Scientific Reports looked at  the required ‘dose’ of nature exposure which may lead to better physical and  mental health with the study title: ‘Spending at least 120 minutes a week in  nature is associated with good health and wellbeing’. Interestingly they found  ‘It did not matter how 120 mins of contact a week was achieved (e.g. one  long vs. several shorter visits/week).’ (White, Alcock et al 2019) A review by Norwich Medical School concluded ‘Green prescriptions involving  greenspace use may have substantial benefits.’ (Twohig-Bennett & Jones  2018)

Even one’s own mortality is now being linked to having access to green  spaces. A study published in the BMJ Open on ‘green space and mortality’  found that in an urban environment, ‘green space was significantly associated  with a reduction in all-cause mortality’ independent of age, sex, marital status,  years living in the city, education level, socioeconomic status, smoking,  alcohol intake, diet quality, self-rated health and housing type. (Wang et al  2017) 

An international study of mental and physical health in Preventive Medicine  Reports entitled ‘Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis’  concluded ‘this study has provided robust evidence for the positive effects of  gardening on health. A regular dose of gardening can improve public health.’  (Soga et al 2017)

A significant reduction in body fat linked with community gardening has been  identified in a large-scale meta-analysis. The researchers found that  ‘gardening had a significantly positive effect on Body Mass Index reduction’  (Kunpeuk et al 2019)

Clinical Medicine, the journal of the Royal College of Physicians recently  published a paper entitled ‘Gardening for health: a regular dose of gardening’  written by the past president. ‘exposure to plants and green space, and  particularly to gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health, and so  could reduce the pressure on NHS services.’ (Thompson 2018)


Generosity and Compassion

Given the evidence above that that there may be a genuine decline in levels  of empathy accompanied by a rise in levels of narcissism amongst a new  generation of young people, the findings of the study ‘Can Nature Make Us  More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and  Generosity’ are directly relevant to the woodland ecology, gardening,  horticulture and farming components of integrated practical skills therapeutic  education. Four studies conducted by the University of Rochester examined  the effects of nature on prosocial and other values focussing on concern for  other people, generosity, and self-focused value orientations. Young people  ‘immersed in natural environments’ were judged as exuding values focusing  on concern for others with greater generosity, compared to those immersed in  ‘non-natural environments’. (Weinstein et al 2009) These findings are further  supported by the conclusions of a new review conducted by the Department  of Psychological Science University of California: ‘a growing body of evidence  finding that nature can enhance social connection. Incidental exposure to the  natural environment can increase attention to others, facilitate collective  engagement, and enhance prosociality––tendencies to care for, help, and  assist others.’ (Goldy & Piff 2019) 

All of the benefits found to be associated with contact with nature may be part  of a larger phenomenon. In the way that the RMT practical skills-based curriculum provides a 3-D education, which seems to satisfy an  evolutionary imperative to involve hands in learning, that in turn  stimulates brain and cognitive functioning, the incorporation of nature based activities in the RMT curriculum seems to satisfy another  evolutionary imperative. Cross- cultural observations find that humans  gravitate toward greenery. This inclination seems to be hard-wired into our  psyche, the result of natural selection. Those who sought green areas or lived  as subsistence hunters, gatherers and farmers were more likely to eat, drink  and survive. Our evolutionary psychology is still strongly shaped by this  ancient basic reliance upon and relationship with nature’s plants. It seems that  many of the benefits associated with our exposure to greenery are part of an


evolutionary reward system reinforcing the very thing that kept us alive for  hundreds of thousands of years. (Ulrich, 1993)

Agricultural Literacy

As attention focuses on the importance of food, nutrition and obesity for young  people in Britain, one particular area of interest is the relationship between the degree of contact they have with the countryside and their ‘agricultural  literacy’ – their awareness and understanding of the food chain. 

To increase young people’s agricultural literacy, the American authorities  instituted the Vocational Education Act of 1963. Later, the prestigious National  Research Council and National Academy of Sciences appointed a committee  to assess the level of understanding American children had about agriculture  which concluded, “The committee found a number of disturbing trends. Most  Americans know very little about agriculture … particularly its links to human  health and environmental quality. Few systematic educational efforts are  made to develop agricultural literacy in students of any age … knowledge of  nutrition to make informed personal choices about diet and health.” The  committee developed the concept of “agricultural literacy – the goal of  education about agriculture.” (National Research Council, 1988)

Other more recent assessments of children’s agricultural literacy since The  Vocational Education Act of 1963 have reported “even more significant  changes have occurred removing the average citizen even further from the  farm… it could be argued that instruction related to an understanding of the  critical importance of agriculture, food, and food production is just as ‘basic’ as  reading writing and arithmetic … pre-secondary Agricultural Education should  be designed to enhance student understanding of the role of agriculture in our  lives.” (WRC Committee for Agricultural Literacy, 1999)

Familiarity Breeds Literacy


The degree of contact pupils have with the agriculture translates into a better  understanding and awareness of the food chain. Furthermore, pupils with  greater agricultural literacy are more likely to make better food choices.

In other words, experience of where their food starts out is a vital ingredient in  the battle to excite and engage students about their diets. It’s also been  established that the ‘visual reinforcement’ of actually seeing food growing  outdoors significantly improves pupils' nutritional knowledge (by 22%), with  that knowledge remaining even 6 months later. 

However – even more importantly gardening and horticulture in a curriculum  helps encourage a taste for the produce itself. In this study, real contact with  food growing outdoors also helped to influence pupils' positive food  preferences for:

· Broccoli (+20%)

· Snow peas (+ 31%) 

· Courgette (+30%) 

· Carrots (+9%),

Interestingly the pupils in this study even showed new “preferences for  vegetables to which they were not directly exposed.” (Morris et al, 2002b) This  indicates that exposure to outdoor agriculture may have a general  improvement effect on student's food choices. This backs up an increasing  number of studies of school gardens, which have been shown to increase  agricultural literacy, knowledge of the food chain, and may also improve  dietary choices in pupils. 

And studies of pupils from Tasmania to Tennessee indicate that real-life  contact with agriculture makes the abstract more concrete – pupils are more  likely to absorb and integrate food knowledge if they have hands-on  experience of its origins. With this in mind there has been a growth in  school gardens and allotments. An increasing number of studies are finding  that experience of school gardens increases agricultural literacy,  knowledge of the food chain, and may also improve dietary choices in


pupils. (Morris, et al.,2000; Morris, et al. 2002a,b; O’Brien et al, 2006;  Lineberger et al. 2000; Somerset, 2005; Castellanos et al 2019)

The University of California’s division of Agricultural and Natural Resources is  continuing to assess the effects of hands–on experience of agriculture for  children. They recently reported that this approach holds “great potential for  academic and social development for youth. Research has proven that  [it] provides a vehicle for improving nutrition, reducing obesity … There  is a strong feeling in that we need to forge a stronger connection between our  children and the earth that feeds them. We will protect and preserve what we  love, and we only love things we know. (UCANR, 2007)


The most notable change in a young person’s everyday life over the past  decade has been the profound decline in their contact with the countryside.  This phenomenon is apparent in Western industrialised countries.

In Britain, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently reported that for 8 – 15 yr olds ‘the average amount of leisure time children spent in parks,  countryside, seaside, beach or coastal locations was 16 minutes per  day.’ However, by the time they reach age 14 this falls to 10 minutes per day.  The ONS also found that children’s ‘participation rates’ for any outdoor  activities also declined almost half by the time they reach age 14 yrs. (ONS  2018) The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has  reported that ‘12% of children (c 1.3 million) never visited the natural  environment in the previous year’. (Hunt et al 2016) 

A 16-year study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  found that Americans are less interested in spending time in natural  surroundings … because they are spending more time watching television,  playing video games and surfing the Internet. After a 50-year steady increase  in visits to the countryside, a significant decline started as of 1988 “coincident  with the rise in electronic entertainment media...”


Researchers tested more than two dozen possible explanations for the trend  and found that 98 percent of the drop in countryside visits was explained by  video games, movie rentals, going out to movies, Internet use and rising fuel  prices. Other possible explanations such as family income or the aging  population were ruled out. They identified “a fundamental shift away from an  appreciation of nature –‘biophilia’ – to ‘videophilia’, the new human tendency  to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.” They found a  similar phenomenon taking place in Japan. 

(Pergams & Zaradic, 2006, 2008; Zaradic & Pergams 2013).

A Norwegian study involving the UK Forestry Commission entitled ‘Why do  children not play in nearby nature?’ studied 3160 parents of children aged 6– 12 years. The researchers identified ‘barriers for children’s engagement  with nearby nature’ noting that both the proportion of children using digital  media and the amount of time they spend on it ‘has increased in the last  decade, and this use increases with age’. They concluded that ‘the shift of  media practices has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that outdoor spaces  have lost much of their appeal as attractive playscapes for children and young  people’. Parents in the study reported ‘the child uses so much time on data  and other screens that to be outside is downgraded’ another reason cited was  ‘the child prefers being indoors’. (Skar et al 2016) 

The RMT curriculum directly redresses the growing concerns about the  lack of time humans, particularly children, spend in outdoor  environments, the limited opportunities to encounter and interact with  the natural world, and the fact that modern society insulates people  from outdoor environmental stimuli. For children, concerns focus on the  detrimental effects on cognitive and emotional development (Kellert, 2002),  the paucity of opportunities to develop an ethic of care for the environment  and empathy for other living creatures/fellow humans (Kahn and Kellert 2002),  a lack of understanding about the interconnectedness of all life forms, as well  as other valuable lessons to be learned from nature (Orr, 2002).



A curriculum primarily based on practical skills-based activities cultivates  precisely the cognitive and physical experiences necessary for full intellectual  development. Yet, across the industrialised world there has been increasing  concern that children and young adults are spending more and more time  experiencing a virtual 2-dimensional world as opposed to a three-dimensional  real world during key years of their cognitive development. This has been the  result of dramatic increases in time spent in front of screen technology (ICT)  (Common Sense Media 2018; Sigman, 2012ab, 2014, 2017, 2019b).

2-D Living

It is important that all professionals working in child and young people’s  education, health and development pause and consider the following:

Watching a 2-dimensional screen is now the single main experience of most  children in our society. 

‘On any given day, American teenagers (13- to 18-year-olds) average about  nine hours (8:56) of entertainment media use, excluding time spent at school  or for homework. Tweens (8- to 12-yearolds) use an average of about six  hours’ (5:55) worth of entertainment media daily.’ (Common Sense Media  2018)

At standard UK levels an average young adolescent using screen devices  (Internet, gaming, TV, mobile) will spend seventy-six 24-hour days a year on  non-homework discretionary screen time (DST). (Ofcom 2017; Sigman  2019a)

By the age of 8, the average child will have spent nearly one full year of 24- hour days on DST. 

By the time they reach 18, this has risen to 3 years 

By the age of 80, DST would account for 18 years of their lives. 

Recent studies report discretionary screen time (DST) in children aged under  two as ‘high and appears to increase steadily across age groups’ (Goh et  al 2016) 

There are now more 3-4 year-olds with their own connected screen  device, than there are without (54%). (Childwise 2018b)


The Office of Communications finds that more than a fifth of 3-4 year olds own  their own tablet, and in terms of media use they report ‘53% go online, for  nearly 8h a week’ and ‘48% use YouTube’. (Ofcom 2017)

By age five, 73 per cent of children own a computer (laptop,  tablet/netbook, desktop) (Childwise 2018a) 

The Office for National Statistics (2017) found a significant increase in the  proportion of 16-24 year olds ‘leisure time spent using a device’ calculated at  6 hours per day. 

At the other end of the youth spectrum, according to Ofcom, the average UK  16–24-year-old is now ‘spending more time on media and  communications than on sleeping’. (Ofcom 2016) 

Children’s discretionary screen time (DST) has risen by over 50% in less than  a decade and appears to be high by any measure as British children adopt a  screen-based lifestyle and at far younger ages than before.

Two decades ago the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry  calculated that over the course of childhood, children spent more time  watching TV than they did in school.(AACAP 2001) Today, when including


computer games, internet and DVDs, by age 18 the average European child  will have spent three years of 24-hour days watching discretionary (non homework) screen media; by the age of 80 they will have spent 18 years  (Sigman 2019a).

Over the last twenty years, social interaction (eye-to-eye contact) appears to  have gone down while levels of eye-to-screen-contact have gone up. Just  before the year 2000, life became literally more virtual: people would spend  more time in front of a screen than spending time interacting with other human  beings Cognition and psychosocial learning


Regarding the potential role of screen time in psychosocial learning, it is  known that younger children experience considerable difficulty when  translating to real life what they see on a screen. Children learn tasks and  language better from a live demonstration than from an equivalent televised  demonstration, a problem referred to as the video deficit. (Zack et al 2009;  2013; Courage 2017; Dore 2017) This effect becomes more pronounced and  may persist at older ages as the task complexity increases - and psychosocial  tasks, such as perceiving and interpreting other ’s actions, emotions and  intentions are highly complex. This is a highly important consideration for  children and young people with or without ASD where the opportunity to  cultivate effective communication and personal skills is imperative for future  employment and general social viability.

A new study published in the Journal of Special Education Technology  compared ‘tablet-delivered and instructor-delivered teaching of children with  ASD’ to listen and respond to others' verbal behavior/language. The  researchers concluded ‘tablets should not systematically replace instructor delivered prompting and reinforcement’. (Chebli et al 2019) A study in  Frontiers in Psychology ‘iPads and the Use of “Apps” by Children with Autism  Spectrum Disorder: Do They Promote Learning?’ found ‘the balance of  evidence suggests that iPads do not readily improve learning and  communication for children with ASD … Conclusion: '… In terms of strictly  promoting spontaneous communication, there does not seem to be an  advantage for electronic platforms relative to more traditional picture books’. (Allen et al 2016)

Studies of young people without learning difficulties also cast doubt on  contemporary claims that digital teaching is superior to more traditional  methods. A study by MIT ‘The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic  Performance’ reported that 'final exam scores among students assigned to  classrooms that allowed computers were 18 percent of a standard deviation  lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers.'  The authors concluded ‘that computer devices have a substantial negative  effect on academic performance.’ (Carter et al 2016) Further research by the


Medical Research Council and Cambridge University asked ‘Do “Brain Training” Programs Work? Researchers examined 132 digital brain training/working-memory training/ video-game-training studies and concluded  that there was ’little evidence … that training improves everyday cognitive  performance …evidence that such training generalizes to other tasks or to  real-world performance is not compelling.’ (Simons et al 2016)

DST outside of the classroom is also linked with lower educational outcomes. A new study in the Journal American Medical Association: pediatrics (2019) concludes ‘television viewing and video game playing ... the activities most  negatively associated with academic outcomes’ the researchers call for a  ‘reduction to improve the academic performance of children and adolescents  exposed to these activities.’ (Adelantado-Renau et al 2019)

In another study of 10,000 children, using a standard test of perceptions of  volume and weight, considered a fairly robust indicator of cognitive  development, researchers have concluded… " ... the performance of students  has recently been getting steadily worse. An 11-year-old today is performing  at the level an 8- or 9-year-old was performing at 30 years ago… in terms of  cognitive and conceptual development … It's a staggering result, … The idea  that children leaving primary school are getting more and more intelligent and  competent is put into question by these findings …The most likely reasons are  the lack of experiential play in primary schools, and the growth of a video game, TV culture. Both take away the kind of hands-on play that allows  kids to experience how the world works in practice and to make  informed judgments about abstract concepts Children, especially  boys, are playing more in virtual worlds instead of "outdoors, with tools  and things …" (Shayer, et al, 2007; Shayer, 2008). 

A drop in higher-level-thinking-skills among adolescents has now been  reported: 14-year- olds today were found to exhibit the higher level thinking  skills of 12 year-olds thirty years ago. Half as many 14 year-olds exhibited higher level (interpretive) thinking as opposed to quick (descriptive) thinking.


The researchers believe "Everything in the past 30 years has speeded up. It's  about reacting quickly but at a shallow level ... text messages and computer  games are about speed and instant hits, rather than more profound or  detailed ways of handling information.' (Shayer & Ginsburg 2009)

There appears to have been a decline in some cognitive skills in a number of  Western countries with some scientists concluding that this ‘effect and its  reversal are both environmentally caused’. They believe it may partly be the  result of ‘changes in educational exposure or quality, changing media  exposure’. (Bratsberg & Rogeberg 2018) Lower levels of critical thinking skills  (global cognition) linked to higher DST were also reported in a study in The  Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. However, the researchers reported  ‘superior global cognition were found in participants who met …. the screen  time recommendation … These findings highlight the importance of limiting  recreational screen time …to improve cognition in children.’

(Walsh et al 2018)

A new study ‘Screen Media Activity and Brain Structure in Youth’ published in  Neuroimage may shed some light on the neurological basis of some of the  changes in cognitive skills in recent times. The researchers found screen  media activity (‘television or videos, playing video games, or using social  media’) was strongly related to brain structure changes and in some cases  ‘lower crystalized and fluid intelligence’ (Paulus et al 2019) A study of Internet  time in young people appearing in Human Brain Mapping reported that ‘higher  frequency of internet use was found to be associated with decrease of verbal  intelligence and smaller increase in … widespread brain areas after a few  years in longitudinal analyses. …brain areas related to language processing,  attention and executive functions, emotion, and reward.’ (Takeuchi et al 2018) Another new study involving researchers at Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge  Universities on the ‘The “online brain” pointed to ‘divided attention ... along  with the increasing #Instagramification of society, has the ability to alter both  the structure and functioning of the brain, while potentially also altering our  social fabric.’ (Firth et al 2019)


Regarding the daily time available for children and young people to learn  psychosocial skills through face-to-face interactions, studies at Stanford  University have led to a ‘displacement’ theory of Internet use: 

In short, no matter how time online is measured and no matter which type of  social activity is considered, time spent on the Internet reduces time spent in  face-to-face relationships... an hour on the Internet reduces face-to-face time  with family by close to twenty- four minutes. (Nie et al 2005)

Even economists are measuring recreational screen time and the decline in  direct human contact referred to as the ‘Economics of Digitization’. In the  study ‘What Are We Not Doing When We're Online’ A research economist at  the Technology Policy Institute reported that ‘new activities, like social media,  have an opportunity cost in terms of activities crowded out…. each minute of  online leisure time is correlated with 0.29 fewer minutes on all other types of  leisure,' including 'from (offline) socializing, 0.04 minutes from relaxing and  thinking, and the balance from time spent at parties, attending cultural events  … working, 0.12 fewer minutes sleeping, 0.10 fewer minutes in travel time,  0.07 fewer minutes in household activities, and 0.06 fewer minutes in  educational activities.' (Wallsten 2014) 

Even a decade ago, a study of family interaction by the University of  California–Los Angeles measured things such as “physical proximity in home  spaces” and reported that “family members seldom came together as a  group.” Children were found alone in almost 35 per cent of observed cases,  the main activity being screen viewing. They concluded that social  disengagement is now rapidly increasing, as eye-to-eye parent-child  interactions are being displaced by the eye-to-screen relationship (Campos et  al, 2009).

Neurobiology of socialisation

We know that if children do not exercise key muscles certain weaknesses will  emerge later. There may be a similar process, which applies to certain brain  areas. It may be that children must exercise specific brain areas and systems


regularly and extensively in situ, in order to develop crucial social and  emotional skills or deficits will emerge later. 

There appear to be differences between typical and ASD individuals in brain  development throughout the lifespan. (Halladay & Amaral 2017) Furthermore,  the idea that our brains are fully mature at 24.5 years is being challenged. In  fact, the very definition of ‘brain maturity’ is being debated at the moment, with  many aspects of development reaching maturity at a later stage than  previously thought. (Somerville 2016) This may indicate that there remains  room for improvement in some of the deficits seen in ASD including social  skills and empathy. (McLeod et al 2015) For example, a new study in the  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders reported that in addition to  improving an ASD individual’s empathetic understanding of other’s, Theory of  Mind training also ‘improves children’s empathic behaviour in naturalistic  situations’. (Hopainen et al 2019)

The development of empathy and compassion requiring subtle skills of  reading the nonverbal nuances of others’ emotions involve similar learning  processes, which appear to have a neurological basis. The learning effects of  routinely experiencing such social emotions are reflected neurologically. For  example, the ‘deliberate cultivation of compassion’ through ‘compassion  training’ for empathic responses to other people is associated with changes in  ‘functional neuroplasticity’ in the brain. (Klimecki et al 2012) The brain’s  insular cortex has been identified as a key brain mechanism involved in  experiencing the emotional states of others and is thought to underlie  egalitarian behaviour in humans.(Dawes et al 2012) Feeling empathy for a  another’s emotional suffering was found to activate ‘affective pain regions’ in  the brain associated with having first-hand experience of the same  suffering.(Meyer et al 2012) New studies such as ‘effects of compassion  training on brain responses’ find ‘increased brain responses to suffering  others in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) … and in the nucleus  accumbens’. (Ashar et al 2019)


At the same time, researchers conducting functional magnetic resonance  imaging (fMRI) research have expressed concern that when using the  internet, for example, the areas of the brain associated with empathy showed  virtually no increase in stimulation, concluding ‘Young people are growing up  immersed in this technology and their brains are more malleable, more plastic  and changing than with older brains ... As the brain evolves and shifts its  focus towards new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social  skills.’ (See Figure 8 below, Immordino-Yang et al 2009; Small 2008)

Some insight into the potential consequences of excessive DST may be seen  in the study ‘Deficits in early-stage face perception in excessive internet users’  which found that ‘Excessive Internet use is associated with a limited ability to  communicate effectively socially, which depends largely on the capacity for  perception of the human face …These data indicate that excessive Internet  users have deficits in the early stage of face-perception processing’ (He et al 2011) Another study found that when adolescents were shown and  asked to judge images with and without pain ‘Internet addicted individuals had  longer average reaction times and lower accuracy… compared to the non addicted subjects.’ (Wang et al 2014)


Another way of looking at the issue is provided by the study ‘Five days at  outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with  nonverbal emotion cues’. The authors wrote, ‘Conclusions: … skills in reading  human emotion may be diminished when children’s face-to-face interaction is  displaced by technologically mediated communication.’ (Uhls et al 2014)

The last National Autism Indicators Report: Transition into Young Adulthood  found that ‘approximately one in four young adults with autism were socially  isolated, meaning they never saw or talked with friends and were never  invited to social activities within the past year.’ They believe this has  significant implications as ‘social and community participation opportunities  often result from connections formed from work and continued schooling, so  these opportunities may be absent in disconnected youth’. Only 36 percent of  young adults on the autism spectrum attended postsecondary education,  including vocational/technical schools, 2-year and 4-year colleges, at some  time between high school and their early 20s. (Roux et al 2015)

Being there: co-presence

Humans require a certain amount of ‘co-presence’—regular eye-to-eye  contact for optimal physical and mental health. (Holt-Lunstad et al 2010)  Moreover, the fundamental ability to relate to others is dependent on social  and emotional skills that are learnt through regular social interaction. Face-to face conversations confer linguistic skills, along with the ability to have  conversations—to know when and how to listen and contribute. This learning  process is highly technical and time consuming. (Abu-Akel 2002) For  example, during face-to-face interaction, in addition to hearing a voice and  accompanying facial expressions of the speaker ’s face, the speech sounds  produce tiny bursts of aspiration—air pressure which hit the child’s skin— tactile information contributing to auditory perception. (Gick & Derrick 2009)

Emotional development involving key bonding hormones is also enhanced  through real-time voice conversation as opposed to instant-messaging. The  study ‘Instant messages vs. speech: hormones and why we still need to hear


each other’ published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior monitored  girls’ stress and bonding hormones (cortisol vs. oxytocin) when they were put  under emotional stress. The children could then either instant message their  mothers, speak on the telephone to their mothers, speak in person with their  mothers, or have no interaction with their parents at all. The researchers  reported ‘We discovered that unlike children interacting with their mothers in  person or over the phone, girls who instant messaged did not release  oxytocin; instead, these participants showed levels of salivary cortisol as high  as control subjects who did not interact with their parents at all.’ (Seltzer et al  2012) Another study comparing human v digital communication concluded  that ‘overall, this research suggests that there may be emotional costs to a  reliance on digital forms of social communication during times of stress.’ (Holtzman et al 2017)

The role of oxytocin in social engagement is of growing interest. A new study  in Pharmacopsychiatry reported that ‘these findings confirm a link between  peripheral oxytocin and the ability to read subtle nonverbal social cues in  healthy individuals’ (Deuse et al 2019). Previously, Lane et al (2013) reported  that ‘oxytocin increases willingness to socially share one's emotions’. In their  study ‘Oxytocin Increases Retention of Social Cognition in Autism’, Hollander  et al (2007) administered intravenous oxytocin to adults with autism or  Asperger’s and found that they ‘retained the ability to accurately assign  emotional significance to speech intonation on the speech comprehension  task … oxytocin might facilitate social information processing in those with  autism.’ There may be genetic limitations on the degree to which those with  ASD can utilise oxytocin. Uzefovsky et al (2019) found that while ‘oxytocin has  a major role in the ‘social brain … One of the genes implicated in autism is the  oxytocin receptor’.

Given the importance of potentiating co-presence and social interaction  amongst all young people especially those with ASD, it is imperative to  consider discretionary screen time in ASD.

ASD and screen use


Studies of children with ASD are finding a more pronounced attraction to  screen overuse and the development of screen dependency disorders (SDD).  Psychiatrists writing in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North  America noted that ‘youth with ASD spend most of their free time on screens’.  (Gwynette et al 2018) 

Some of the ‘key points’ made were:

• ‘Extended screen time has a multitude of harmful effects on typically  developing youth’

• ‘Youth with autism spectrum disorder may be even more at risk than  typically developing peers for many of these harmful effects.’  ‘

• ‘The core features of ASD place many individuals at risk for over- use  and improper use of electronic screen media, which could result in  harmful consequences.’

A study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders noted  "Children with ASD may be attracted to video games because they can be  rewarding, visually engaging and do not require face-to-face communication  or social interaction. Parents need to be aware that, although video games  are especially reinforcing for children with ASD, children with ASD may have  problems disengaging from these games." (Mazurek & Westrup 2013) Another study entitled ‘Video Game Use and Problem Behaviors in Boys with  Autism Spectrum Disorders’ published in Research in Autism Spectrum  Disorders found that such boys ‘are much more likely to develop problematic  or addictive patterns of video game play.’ ((Mazurek & Engelhard 2013)

Screen Dependency Disorders

There is now empirical evidence that extensive exposure to videogame playing during childhood (5 - 18 yrs) may lead to structural changes in brain  regions associated with addiction. (Sigman 2017) A study published in Digital natives, those familiar with computers and the internet from an early  age, have a higher prevalence of screen-related ‘addictive’ behaviour that  reflects impaired reward-processing and impulse-control brain mechanisms.  Links are emerging between screen dependency disorders such as internet  addiction and specific genetic predispositions, abnormal brain tissue and brain  function. 

There is a significant association between pathological internet use and  ADHD symptoms. Rather than ‘addictive’ screen time being a reflection of a  pre-existing psychological problem, the relationship may be bidirectional - working both ways. (Gentile et al 2011)

In 2019, the World Health Organisation added disease number ‘6C51:  Gaming disorder’ to its official ‘morbidity and mortality’ list of International  Classification of Diseases and are now calling for ‘public health strategies  …prevention’. (WHO 2019) Schools, colleges and parents must play a central  role in that prevention especially in children and young people with ASD or  ADHD.


Mental Health

There is a growing relationship between the sheer amount of DST, the types  of DST and mental health outcomes ranging from clinical depression, body  dissatisfaction and eating pathologies to screen dependency disorders and  ADHD.

For example, a new large-scale study of young people published in  Psychiatric Quarterly is entitled ‘Media Use Is Linked to Lower Psychological  Well-Being: Evidence from Three Datasets’ (Twenge & Campbell 2019)  Another study appearing in JAMA Pediatrics ‘Association of Screen Time and  Depression in Adolescence’ found that ‘for every increased hour spent using  social media, adolescents showed a 0.64-unit increase in depressive  symptoms’. They found similar links with computer and television use. (Boers  et al 2019). A study of 40,337 children aged between 2 - 17 years found that  as daily DST increased psychological well-being and behaviour declined: the  percentage ‘diagnosed with depression or anxiety’ or ‘argue too much with  their caregivers’, or ‘do not stay calm when challenged’ increased as DST  increased.

While debate continues over whether violent video games make young people  more violent it is worth considering the potential influence on students with  ADHD and/or ASD. In a recent meta-analysis appearing in the Proceedings of  National Academy of Sciences the researchers concluded ’playing violent  video games is associated with greater levels of overt physical aggression  over time, after accounting for prior aggression.’(Prescott et al 2018). Other  studies examine changes in levels of stress hormone cortisol, heart rate and  blood pressure when comparing a violent vs non-violent video game. Gentile et al (2017) found the violent games ‘elicit a fight- or- flight type  response in children … increased cortisol and (for boys) cardiovascular  arousal also increased the accessibility of aggressive thoughts.’ 

High levels of DST are now linked with differences in cortisol and a pro inflammatory immune system compound IL-6 thought to play a role in a  variety of serious diseases. Adolescents with greater smart phone use,  general screen media exposure, and larger social media networks are more 

likely to have higher levels of cortisol and IL6 when they wake up in the  morning, and if they use this technology at bedtime they are more likely to  have higher levels of cortisol upon awakening in the morning. (Afifi et al 2018) On the other hand, a recent study in The Journal of Social Psychology found  ‘taking a break from Facebook led to lower cortisol levels after just five days  … an improvement in physiological stress by giving up Facebook’. (Vanman  et al 2018)

There is new evidence that high use of new screen media may play a role in  the emergence of ADHD symptoms in mid to later adolescence. A study in the  Journal American Medical Association screened 15 and 16 year olds to  ensure they had no signs of ADHD when the study began and then over the  next 2 years observed that ‘there was a significant association between higher  frequency of modern digital media use and subsequent symptoms of ADHD  over a 24-month follow-up’ (Ra et al 2018) Interestingly a new study in PLoS  ONE entitled ‘Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in pre schoolers’ reported that ‘children with more than 2-hours of screen-time per


day had a 7.7-fold increased risk of meeting criteria for ADHD’. (Tamana  2019) A recent review on increased risk for ADHD from animal and human  studies in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences concluded  that ‘excessive sensory stimulation early in life can negatively impact cognitive  function and behavior.’ (Christakis et al 2018)

Due to the emphasis on ‘real-world’ 3-D learning, co-presence, mentoring and  social interaction, a practical skills therapeutic education is likely to minimize  this risk and potentiate social engagement as stated in the Ofsted reports for  the Ruskin Mill Colleges mentioned above.


The mechanism by which craft activities produce positive effects may be in  part by reinforcing and cultivating a greater sense of control within the  student. The concept of locus of control refers to our general belief that what  happens is mainly either under our own control (internal locus) or a matter of  chance or outside controllable factors (external locus).

While our degree of internal/external locus of control may be powerfully  influenced by behavioural genetics and our upbringing and earlier life  experiences, it is still modified by our subsequent experiences (Marsiglia et  al., 2007). Studies of children and adults in a variety of settings including  schools, colleges and laboratories have reported shifts in the individual’s  locus of control brought about by the nature of the curriculum and other  approaches. For example, the introduction of an agro-forestry curriculum involving student participation “incorporating local agricultural and forestry  issues in student work” resulted in “student internal locus of control had  increased”. (Herbeck, 2004)

Far away from the outdoor curriculum, teaching students a skill that increases  their sense of control over something – even a skill as unusual as controlling  their own finger temperature – has been linked to their general sense of  control over wider events. A laboratory-based study of 18-21 year olds found


that biofeedback-assisted autogenic training (controlling finger temperature)  made the young adults “significantly more internal in their locus of control after  training”. (Sharp et al., 1997). 

It seems that by learning to control things in a ‘hands-on’ context, students  may gain a more general sense of control over other areas of their lives.  Therefore, the RMT curriculum, primarily based on practical skills activities  where the learner is fully involved in all stages of the process including work  with pewter, copper, metal forging, jewellery, horticulture and building projects  as well as drama, may cultivate a greater internal locus of control in students.  One practical example can be observed in the process of gold leaf gilding at  Freeman College in Sheffield where the use of highly controlled ‘circular’  breathing is developed in the students to prevent blowing the very fine flakes  of gold away.

And there are practical implications of a more balanced locus of control. A  recent 26-year study from birth involving 3700 British people found that  internal locus of control was “significantly related to educational attainment in  both men and women.” The study also found that “Self-esteem predicted  educational attainment in both genders by increasing internal locus of control”  (Flouri, 2006). 

While an earlier study concluded, " An important element in promoting  achievement in educational environments is the sense of control or  empowerment that students' perceive they have over performance.” (Nunn  and Nunn, 1993) Students with an enhanced internal locus of control may see  their grades as being achieved through their own abilities and efforts, whereas  those with an enhanced external locus of control may consider their grades as  the product of good or bad luck, or to a tutor who constructs bad exams or  grades whimsically; hence, they are less likely to expect that their own efforts  will result in success and are therefore less likely to work hard for high grades.  (Rotter, 1975)


In the work place, it has been found that those with an enhanced internal  locus of control are more likely to take positive action to change their jobs,  rather than merely to talk about it, than those who have a more external locus  of control (Maltby et al., 2007). 

And once students are out in the working adult world, enhanced internal locus  of control is linked with having a lower level of work-family conflicts (Boyar  and Mosley, 2007)

Emotional stability, behaviour and mental health are also influenced by locus  of control. A more internal locus of control is associated with an increased  ability to delay gratification, tolerate ambiguous situations, or resist coercion.  (Lefcourt, 1976; Rotter, J.B. 1966). While in clinical studies, enhanced internal  locus has been found to have a lower association with suffering from anxiety,  and a reduced risk of suffering from depression, other psychopathologies, and  behavioural problems (Liu et al., 2000).

Even something medical and physiological such as the level of insulin  resistance in diabetic patients is significantly lower in patients with a higher  internal locus of control. (Trentoa et al., 2007) And learning about their  condition in a group as opposed to individual setting was found to increase  patient’s internal locus of control. (Trento et al 2008)

From the examples above it is clear that enhancing internal locus of control is  associated with a wide variety of benefits in a wide variety of groups and  settings. With regard to students, a major project in the United States advised “Instructional strategies and techniques must also be developed that will  promote a sense of internal locus of control. Resilient students have  spoken of satisfaction gained from experiencing success in self-fulfilling  activities. These activities also increase the motivation to achieve. At-risk  students need to have visible and concrete displays of success in order  for them to see the progress that has been made.” (MERC, 2008) A high  proportion of the practical skills therapeutic education involves precisely these  visible and concrete displays of success.



The term ‘self-esteem’ is assumed by those in education to be a unitary  concept and always a good thing. But there are now grave reservations about  our wholehearted embrace of bigging our young people up.

Psychometric measures of narcissism along with self-esteem in the young  have been found by some to have risen steadily since the early 80s. One US  national study of 16,475 college students concluded that today’s young are  more narcissistic and self-centred than their predecessors. Two-thirds of  students have above-average scores, 30 percent more than a quarter of a  century ago. The researchers attribute the phenomenon to the “self-esteem  movement” that emerged in the 1980s, concluding that the effort to build self confidence has gone too far. (Twenge & Foster 2010) A recent study in  Germany concluded that there has also generally been a rise in narcissism  amongst the young. (Vater et al 2018)

Other research has proposed that there has been a decline in empathy during  this same period of time. Interestingly, there is now thought to be an ‘empirical  rationale for the use of community-based and nature oriented approaches’ to  helping Millennials with empathy and narcissism. (Metz 2017)

Research on high self-esteem is now finding that there are good and bad  forms. A study in the Journal of Personality reported that there are many kinds  of high self-esteem, with the authors stating, ‘we found that for those in which  it is fragile and shallow, it’s no better than having low self-esteem’. It’s now  becoming clear that of the multiple forms of high self-esteem, only some  consistently relate to positive psychological functioning. 

High self-esteem in students does not produce better grades. It seems, if  anything, it’s the other way round: getting good grades leads to higher self esteem. In fact, a study at Virginia Commonwealth University found that  university students with mediocre grades, who received frequent self-esteem


strokes from their lecturers, ended up doing worse in their final exams than  students who were told to bite the bullet and try harder.

It has often been assumed that it is low self-esteem that is more likely to be a  cause of violence, yet it is found that violent people often think rather highly of  themselves. People with high self-esteem are likely to respond aggressively  when their inflated view of themselves is threatened by criticism or perceived  insult, or when someone obstructs their need for gratification. Members of  gangs are found to have high self-esteem, so do wife-beaters. Violent  criminals, who we’ve been told are ‘acting out’ their low self-esteem, actually  have the highest scores on a personality scale of narcissism (excessive self love). And high self-esteem has been linked to bullying. The researcher Roy  Baumeister has written ‘according to most of the studies that have been done;  it is simply untrue that beneath the surface of every obnoxious bully is an  unhappy, self-hating child in need of sympathy and praise’. High self-esteem  doesn’t prevent children and young people from cheating, stealing or  experimenting with drugs and sex. Children with high self-esteem may be  even more willing to try these things at a young age.

The American Psychological Society commissioned Baumeister and other  experts to assess the benefits of high self-esteem. And Baumeister’s  conclusion is unequivocal:

‘Here are some of our disappointing findings. … In short, despite the  enthusiastic embrace of self-esteem … After all these years, I’m sorry to say,  my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more  on self-control and self-discipline. Recent work suggests this would be good  for the individual and good for society – and might even be able to fill some of  those promises that self-esteem once made but could not keep.’

Enhancing self-esteem has often focused on expressing feelings and  emotions, without, at the same time, demanding self-discipline and self control. Other researchers too now believe that perseverance, resiliency and  reality-testing, are much better predictors of life fulfilment and success than


self-esteem. Young people who are repeatedly told that there is little about  themselves that demands improvement are being helped to develop a  distorted, socially unviable sense of self. On the other hand, parents and  teachers who set realistically high expectations, criticise when it is warranted  and are intolerant of egotistical behaviour and values are conferring great  benefits on the young. Baumeister and others have revisited this issue and  concluded ‘At present, we would speculate that schools, organizations, and  society at large would benefit more by cultivating self-control than self-esteem’  (Sigman, 2009b; Baumeister & Vohs 2018)

Healthy self-esteem does not appear to be developed by being served with  contrived platitudes but through experience, it is a by-product of living in a  constructive way. Instead of trying to raise it directly in a young person, it’s  more effective to focus elsewhere (such as on what a student does) and  enable self-esteem to rise as a side effect. The practical skills therapeutic  education appears to incorporate these necessary elements. The  apprenticeship learning and mentoring, the process of crafting,  combined with the student experiencing the result of the their own  efforts appears an ideal approach to developing the right type of self esteem in the right way. 


Sustained attention and self-regulation are promoted and reinforced through a  practical skills-based curriculum. Many parts of the RMT curriculum, for  example “craft activities where the learner is fully involved in all stages of the  process” as well as drama and storytelling, require sustained attention – the  ability to concentrate. 

The process of ‘start-to-finish learning’ also cultivates deferred gratification, vital to impulse control. Although intelligence is generally thought to play a key  role in children's early academic achievement, aspects of children's self regulation abilities - including the ability to alternately shift and focus attention


and to inhibit impulsive responding - are uniquely related to early academic  success and account for greater variation in early academic progress than do  measures of intelligence. Although there is currently a focus on teaching  specific content and factual information even in pre-school and early primary  education, these findings indicate that without a simultaneous focus on  promoting self-regulation skills - to be able to sufficiently regulate attention,  impulsivity - many children are likely to struggle to keep pace with the  academic demands (Blair and Razza, 2007; Liu et al 2018)

This distinction between sustained and divided attention is the subject of  increasing concern because of the dramatic increase in younger people  multitasking with different electronic media: social networking online, flicking  their eyes from laptop to TV screen and back again, or flipping between  channels to keep up with two simultaneous shows at once. A recent review of  ‘media multitasking in relation to academic performance’ concluded that it  ‘interferes with attention and working memory, negatively affecting Grade  Point Average, test performance, recall, reading comprehension, note-taking,  self-regulation, and efficiency. These effects have been demonstrated during  in- class activities (largely lectures) and while students are studying. In  addition, students struggle to accurately assess the impact media multitasking  will have on their academic performance.’ (May & Elder 2018)

As more young people either study with a TV on in the room or multi-task by  switching their attention between different forms of electronic media or even  different programs on the same screen, brain imaging reveals that multi tasking activates a different brain region (the striatum) to the one used when  you learn one thing at a time (medial temporal lobe) which may be a  significant hindrance to learning. (Foerde et al, 2006) The neuroscientists  behind this research described the benefits of modern multitasking as "a myth  ... The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large - amazingly so ... you will  never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for  processing information during multitasking." (Myers, 2006)


Research has recently looked at the degree of media multi-tasking that young  people engage in and the size of key brain areas. The anterior Cingulate  Cortex (ACC) is involved in error detection, learning and the recognition of  emotional cues. A recent study entitled ‘Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is  Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex’,  concluded ‘individuals who engaged in more media multitasking activity had  smaller grey matter volumes [brain size] in the ACC. This could also possibly  explain the poorer cognitive control performance and negative socio emotional outcomes associated with increased media-multitasking.’ The authors state ‘although it is conceivable that individuals with smaller ACC  are more susceptible to multitasking … it is equally plausible that higher levels  of exposure to multitasking situations lead to structural changes in the ACC.’ 

A practical skills therapeutic education runs contrary to trends in greater  media multitasking.


Storytelling is not thought of as a 'heavyweight' academic activity. However  cognitive and neuroscientists are revisiting this 'folksy' tradition and reinforcing  what school inspectors are noting.

Storytelling involves considerable cognitive demands: imagery, thinking ahead  with plot and narrative, vocalisation, performance, listening and interpreting.  For example, when the brain imagines, it increases activity literally forming  new dendrites and synaptic connections. Imagery therefore speeds  communication within the cells and between the cells in the brain. Imagery  building skills from oral word 'paintings' involves a process of conscious  thought that transfers to reading imagery skills. If you visualize what you hear,  you facilitate the ability to visualize what you read." Storytelling, probably the  oldest form of narrative in the world, is not the same as reading aloud,  because in storytelling, the interaction between teller and listener is  immediate, personal, active, and direct. (ERIC, 1988)

Like other components of the RMT curriculum, storytelling was a necessary  evolutionary survival mechanism, built into the fabric of the brain and if it’s not  our own story we are attending to we readily latch on to others. The  neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (2005) locates the storytelling 'machinery'  in the brain’s left hemisphere: the function of “the Interpreter”, as he calls it, is  to identify patterns of connection between different brain modules and  correlate them with events in the external world. The activity, internal and  external, is wound into a single narrative thread of subjective experience. This  is why storytelling provides excellent cognitive exercise - in neurological  terms it is a cognitive multi-gym.


One example of how storytelling may have unexpected effects on neuro cognitive functioning is seen in a Canadian study. Helping children to develop  their storytelling abilities was linked to their success in maths years later. This  is a good example of how a the brain often benefits from one form of  stimulation, later enhancing skills you would normally assume come from a  completely different form of stimulation. O’Neill et al., 2004)

Brain development and maintenance is dependent upon induced imagery.  That is, in order for the brain to develop properly and to be maintained  throughout life, it must be stimulated; instead of "use it or lose it," it's "use it or  never get it to begin with." Induced imagery means creating pictures in the  mind. Most children today are exposed mainly to imposed imagery: television,  DVDs, computer-based images, and even picture books. The brain's function  is reduced to taking in something that is already in front of the eye, rather than  creating an image of something that is not apparent. A study in Pediatrics  concluded that ‘In preschool children listening to stories, greater home  reading exposure is positively associated with activation of brain areas  supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension’. (Hutton et al 2015) Other research has found that storytelling, or reading aloud a chapter  book without pictures, is an exceedingly effective method of stimulating  the brain's ability for induced imagery. (Muller, 2000) Perhaps parents  have known all of this intuitively which is why they read stories to their  children.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Roger G. Schank, former head of the Artificial  Intelligence Laboratory at Yale University, was examining the issue of how we  think, and how our thinking processes influence our behaviour. He was  attempting to develop artificial intelligence programs for computers through  this work. What he found was that the human brain is programmed to think in  terms of stories. A human brain may receive thousands of pieces of  information daily. Most of it we can't retrieve, even minutes later, while other  information can stay with us for years, and we can easily recall it. Why?  Because the information that we tend to remember is presented in the context  of a story about the information, person, or event. In Schank's book Tell Me a


Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory, he states, "Stories give life  to past experiences; stories make events in memory memorable to others and  to ourselves." In other words, memories are really stories, which can be  recalled at a later time. Pupils who are exposed to information in the context  of a story can better recall it later. (Schank, 1990)

Storytelling provides imagery-building skills, creates an attentive listener,  expands interest into new areas, centres the attention of the class, and  teaches language, story plots, folkways, ethics, traditions and customs.  Storytelling can supplement and enhance the existing literacy program by  supporting teacher's language arts programs. "Stories are effective alternative  methods of teaching cross cultural, understanding, family and community  values, writing, and speaking skills. The oral story as a traditional transmitter  of folkways, ethics, traditions, and customs is an effective provider of  information that impacts on behaviour modification. The entertainment quality  of the oral story provides not only a mechanism to transmit information to an  attentive listener but also has the residual effect of improving reading  motivation. Storytelling conveys language and story plot structure, which  enhances reading comprehension. "Poor readers of every age have difficulty  connecting between what they read and what they already know. Telling a  story provides a road map of information, ideas and characters to the listener  and when coupled with a discussion of the story, the student learns that the  purpose of reading is to acquire information and insight." The oral story  holds the attention of the listener and this process of focusing a group's attention may spill over into other educational activities enhancing  social skills and confidence. (US Dept. Education, 1988; ERIC, 1988;  NCTE, 2008) 

Is There Still an Opportunity to ‘Improve’ 16-25yr  olds?

Can earlier deprivations or difficulties be redressed during a three-year period  of education in teenagers and young adults? “Until recently, general cognitive  capacities were seen as relatively fixed and not subject to change, at least in


nonclinical populations. However, this picture is changing.” (Ybarra et al,  2008).

Part of the answer concerns the process of brain development and how  experiences influence the size, structure and function of the young adult brain  – literally - irrespective of learning difficulties. As mentioned previously, young  adult brains don’t even finish maturing until the mid to late twenties moreover,  the very definition of ‘brain maturity’ is being debated at the moment, with  many aspects of development reaching maturity at a later stage than  previously thought. (Somerville 2016) This may indicate that there remains  room for improvement in some of the deficits seen in learning difficulties and  so there is opportunity to influence that development through practical skills  therapeutic educational experiences.

Understanding how the brain learns reveals why some shortcomings can be  redressed or at least improved upon. The types and degrees of stimulation  the student receives from his environment affect the actual number and the  density of their brain cell connections, and width of blood vessels, which  supply the brain. This process of moulding, referred to as structural  neuroplasticity, affects both the brain structure and function and appears to  influence brain cell development and the regulation of the brain’s chemical  messengers (neurotransmitters). (Lida et al 2019; Arango-Lievano et al 2019) Cognitive demands physically improve and children and young people’s brains.

An example of how 16-25 year olds could improve brain structure along with certain cognitive abilities is seen in the finding that learning to meditate as an  adult is ‘associated with larger grey matter volume overall, and with regional  enlargement in several right hemispheric cortical and subcortical brain regions  that are associated with sustained attention, self-control, compassion and  interoceptive perception. The increased grey matter … suggests use dependent enlargement with regular practice of this meditation.’ (Hernandes  et al 2016) Other studies find that even physical leisure activities like golf that are merely mentally rehearsed in the minds of middle-aged adults induce beneficial changes in ‘functional neuroplasticity’ within their brains (Bezzola et al 2012).

The Apprenticeship-Tutor Relationship

Beyond the business of imparting practical skills, the second process of the apprenticeship-tutor relationship is the inadvertent, sometimes incidental, lesson in how to be an adult - in particular, how to be a man - how to behave, interact, respect elders or those of experience, those in authority. Apprenticeships provide an arena for becoming socially viable. The intensive mentoring that occurs at the Ruskin Mill colleges, in addition to cultivating capacity building and imparting general transferable competencies, may act to develop and enhance the process of maturation and stability in young people. And this in turn may benefit the student but also the employer, who will end up with a better employee possessing learned saleable skills ... because they are more viable human being.


For education to reach fruition in adulthood it must help students to develop into socially and emotionally viable human beings. It has been often said that there is an inherent lawfulness imparted through learning crafts. Therefore, such a curriculum is also a socialising process – life learning through doing. And so, the social and emotional landscape of a college is the second, and interesting chapter in the story of how a practical skills therapeutic curriculum may exert its fullest effects.


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