If you like to think about how young kids learn, this New York Times Magazine article (“Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?") is a pretty fascinating read. It examines the research, philosophy, and real-world classroom application of a Colorado-based pre-K and kindergarten teaching program called “Tools of the Mind.” I’d heard a little bit about in an NPR story last February, but this much more in-depth article has done more to impact my thinking as a parent and teacher.
Tools of the Mind advocates point to the fact that one of the most important determinants in a child’s future success in school is something called their “executive function.” As reporter Paul Tough explains, executive function "refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.”
The article points to how leading students toward fairly complex, extended sessions of dramatic play is one of the best ways to improve executive function and self-regulation. Research indicates that other more artificially, teacher-imposed attempts to directly teach or reward self-regulation and self-control prove mostly futile, but children given rich opportunities to engage in dramatic play perform much better on assesments of executive function.
But the thing that’s impacted me most through reading the story, and having just witnessed my mom playing everything from grocery store to boat-safari with Will and Owen last week, is the notion that we as adults can lead our children to play at richer, more complex levels. As teachers and parents, we can push kids to play in more dramatic, rich and sustained ways by modeling play, establishing scenarios when a child seems at a loss for what to do and asking children’s questions about their play that push them to think further about it. (In Tools of the Mind programs, students are asked to write down their plan for play at the outset of the day, bizarre as that might sound.) As a preschool teacher, I am reminded to attend to children’s play and help them plan and extend it a bit more. (I think I may start a play notebook where I begin recording our three-year-olds notions of what kinds of dramatic play they hope to engage in, partly so that I can track how that develops over time and help them think about how to play together in more sustained, collaborative ways.) As a parent, I’m engaging in a bit more story-telling while driving and at-home scenario-suggesting when one or both of the boys seems at a loss for what to do, while still resisting falling back into my long-ago role as perpetual playmate. Once the boys are engaged in play, I let them have at it while I enjoy my role as eavesdropper from the kitchen.