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Zebras and what they can teach us about critical thinking

One of my favorite expressions is "when you hear hoof beats, don't look for zebras." Of course, in Zimbabwe the proverb might be different, but the concept is clear - look for simple explanations first, and then move on to the complex. This adage was on my mind this week as I read coverage of two new studies. One dealt with children, media use and obesity; the other with kids' active play given different types of playground equipment.
March 13, 2014

One of my favorite expressions is “when you hear hoof beats, don’t look for zebras.” Of course, in Zimbabwe the proverb might be different, but the concept is clear – look for simple explanations first, and then move on to the complex.

This adage was on my mind this week as I read coverage of two new studies. One dealt with children, media use and obesity; the other with kids’ active play given different types of playground equipment. In each, the study authors (and/or the reporters covering the story) proposed conclusions or causal relationships based on the findings; but in each case, too, there were other, potentially simpler, alternatives not raised.

Now, sometimes the clop-clopping you hear really is zebras, and there’s a complex explanation. Or, there may be a mixed herd, reflecting multiple influences, common and uncommon. Sometimes, the best course is to follow the findings even if the antecedents aren’t clear, if it appears to represent the best outcome for the child.

My reason for writing about this, then, isn’t to critique the specific studies or their conclusions, but to point out that critical thinking about correlations and potential causes is a structural support in the bridge between industry and academia. Without this insight, it’s difficult to envision sustainable and responsible strategies.

The playground study, from Australia, compared two schools, measuring the extent of 5- to 12-year-olds’ physical activity using pedometers. At one school, the researchers introduced “movable/recycled materials‚Ķgenerally not considered to be typical play materials for children within schools”; the other school had sports equipment and more traditional playground structures. The initial study lasted seven weeks, with a follow-up visit at eight months. Children in the school with unique playthings showed substantially higher activity, and the resulting coverage took the tack that “Buckets, pipes and other simple objects make for best kids’ toys” and “Kids Benefit More Playing With Boxes Than With Expensive Toys.”

Was the simplicity or cost of the toys the determining factor, though? Perhaps the non-zebra explanation is novelty – kids played more and harder because they had something new to play with. In fact, the study reported that the intensity of play had dropped substantially by the eight-month check. We’ve all heard of kids spurning a toy for the box it came in; the cardboard box, stick and ball are all in the Toy Hall of Fame. So, there’s no harm in giving kids more access to simpler toys.

Before we send classic playgrounds to the scrap heap, however, it would be good to spend more time testing various hypotheses. Would kids respond similarly to novel, higher-tech playground equipment like NEOS, over a short experimental period? We might also study the “how” (play patterns) beyond the “what” (equipment): did increased activity result from different types of play or just greater intensity?¬†This is the type of insight needed to inform financially sustainable public and planning policies.

The obesity study explored the effect on children’s weight of having a television in the bedroom. It found an association among young teens between bedroom TV and weight gain, and suggested some possible causes like sleep pattern alterations and greater exposure to food advertisements.

Some embedded smaller findings raise flags, though, raising questions about whether all kids are affected equally, or if some subgroups are more vulnerable than others.

For example, the study found the weight gain from bedroom TV was independent of viewing time, calling into question the role of advertising. Also, presence of a bedroom TV was further associated with a number of eye-opening factors: less-demanding and less-responsive parents, lower parental education level and lower family income. Low-income neighborhoods tend to have less access to healthful foods, and previous large-scale research in Europe revealed that more educated parents feed their children higher-quality diets.

The mere presence of a TV in the bedroom – discounting how much or what is viewed – starts to look more like a zebra. In its favor, it supports the easiest solution for parents. As the authors wrote: “In contrast to limiting screen time, which may require consistent parental monitoring, removing a child’s bedroom television is a structural change in the child’s electronic media environment that is potentially long lasting.” Limiting screen time is hard work for parents, but not as difficult as changing income level, gaining more education, or becoming a more demanding and responsive parent. Still, if the easiest solution isn’t also the most effective, you treat the symptoms but not the cause.

You may have to do a lot of tracking, chase down some pretty tricky zebras and even some elusive horses. Sometimes, all you end up with is a correlation with no apparent cause. Still, whenever you read about a new piece of children and media research, remember that many potential causes can underlie a correlation.

Word of the Post: Occam’s Razor – A principle saying that if you have multiple possible theories or potential explanations, you should begin with the one that requires the fewest accompanying assumptions.

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.

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