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Pretend Play, Self-Control and 5-Year-Olds

Paul Tough's article in yesterday's New York Times Magazine puts the spotlight on Tools of the Mind -- a teaching strategy that encourages children to engage in make-believe play in the classroom. The idea is that by letting young children adopt and act out roles -- whether it's doctor or daddy or doughnut maker -- these children will be indirectly learning skills of inhibition and self-control. They must stay in character and plan out their next move. What's more, they have to work out how to share the "stage" with their classmates and adapt to the movements and desires of different characters around them.

Early research on Tools of the Mind has been promising. In 2007, research results by Adele Diamond, a cognitive scientist at the University of British Columbia, showed that it made a significant impact on children's "executive functioning" -- their ability to regulate their emotions and focus on tasks. A 2008 study  showed similar positive outcomes for children's behavior.The teaching appoach is now the subject of several research studies across the country, and as Tough's article explains, there are still many unanswered questions about exactly which parts of the Tools program are doing the most good and how to replicate them.

The "Tools" approach has been on my mind too -- and not just because it epitomizes the play=learning mantra that may help solve the problems of "kindergarten cram." Recent research, described here at Early Ed Watch, has shown that attention problems may be an overlooked area of concern as we talk about school readiness. Most people may figure that the only way to cope with a lack of focus and poor executive function skill is to rely on rewards and punishments, as well as the much-debated use of "time outs." But are these the most developmentally appropriate methods to use? What strategies should teachers employ as they prod their students to develop more focus and self-control? And can parents take home a few pointers?

Related posts

To De-Pressurize Kindergarten, Here Are Four Must-Do's (9/10/09)

A Prominent Researcher Asks Some Good, Hard Questions About Playtime (8/11/09)

Two Antidotes to 'Kindergarten Cram' (5/4/09)

In Search of More Play in Kindergarten – and More Solid Research on What’s Happening There (5/31/09)

As I was reading the New York Times article, my daughters were busy "playing school" in our living room. Gillian, 5, was the teacher. Janelle, 7, was her assistant, clipboard in hand. Imaginary, invisible kids were sitting in a row of chairs. Yes, I said to myself, this is self-regulation in action.

But then, from what I could glean in my eavesdropping, one of the imaginary children struck out and hit another imaginary child. Janelle marched over, glaring at what looked to me like empty space. Gillian shouted: Time out! Now you're on "red"!

This talk of being "on red" was a direct replication of the '"conduct code" that has become a central part of her kindergarten experience so far. In her school, children start the day on "green" but get warnings -- usually moving from "yellow" to "red" -- when they act out or disrupt the class. And the "time out?" Well, that was probably something she learned from me, my move of last resort when I throw up my hands and cannot figure out how else to keep my children from clobbering each other. I wonder if we need a few more "Tools" here at home too.

Photograph by flickr user Riaskiff  republished under the Creative Commons license.