For the sake of those who can’t make the lecture tonight because of the weather or they just hate their children or whatever, I decided to post my unedited lecture notes here. If you came tonight (loving the tenses here as it is 1:45pm) and are wondering why I didn’t say any of this, well, I’m not one to memorize or read lectures verbatim.
The Power of Play
Who here has kindergarteners, 3 year olds, 4year olds? Fourth graders? Sixth graders?
I want you to imagine that you do the following experiment on your kids. You sit them down with a plate that has two marshmallows on it and you tell them, “I’m going to leave the room for a few minutes. You can eat one of the marshmallows now, but if you wait until I get back and don’t eat the marshmallow until I come back in, then you can have both of those marshmallows.”
How do you think your kids would do? Those of you with twins, would they fair the same, or do you have one eater and one waiter?
This is the experiment first designed by a child development researcher named Mischel at the labs at Stanford in the 1960s to test children’s abilities to delay gratification at different ages. The original experiment was with cookies I believe, but it has been reproduced so many times with marshmallows that it’s become known as the marshmallow experiment. It is so fun to watch the preschoolers and kindergarteners trying not to eat the marshmallow. There are video clips of the kids just dying. Closing their eyes, hiding the marshmallows. Hiding themselves. Pacing the room. A lot of them, scarf them down. Others look like they’re doing fine, like they’re going to make it, then scarf. Some smell the marshmallows. A video I watched showed one girl hyperventilating on the marshmallow and then eats the inside of it.
Those of you that had kids ages 3-5, what do you think your kids would do?
72 % of kindergarteners eat the cookies. Three out of four can’t make it 15 minutes.
Those of you who have fourth graders? How would your fourth grader do?
49% of fourth graders. About half and half.
How about the sixth graders?
38% of sixth graders. Noticeable improvement in those two years. More of the kids are able to wait than not.
As an adult, how would you do? Adults with normal functioning brains are all able to wait 15 minutes as long as they value the extra marshmallow. When asked whether they want $100 now or $200 next year, however, they don’t do so well. So it’s not like our ability to delay gratification is ever perfect.
The experiment certainly showed that children’s ability to delay gratification increases with age, or perhaps their valuation of an additional cookie or marshmallow decreases. The great jaw-dropping finding, however, came when Mischel followed up with the kids from the initial experiment years later when they were in highschool. He found that
Children who at age 4-6 could delay gratification for 15 minutes eventually scored 210 points higher on their SATs than children who lasted only one minute.
My Marshmallow Experiment
Now, my little girl loves marshmallows. She often will ask for a few marshmallows for her daily treat after the babies go to bed. So one of these nights when she was 3 or 4 and I was giving her marshmallows, I couldn’t help myself. I just had to try the marshmallow experiment. Part of me didn’t want to know, but I couldn’t stop myself. I gave her two marshmallows and told her she could have two more if she could wait until the clock turned 6 minutes. I think it was six minutes. Then I went upstairs to change the laundry.
When I came back down, I was trying to be all non-chalant about it and not make a big deal or pretend that her whole Harvard career rested upon these two marshmallows. So I get into the kitchen and I see her sitting at the table, and it’s empty. No marshmallows. Sigh. So I tried to be cool, and I said, “Oh, Fluffy. So you ate those marshmallows, huh?” And she said, “No! They’re right here!” and she pulled them from under the table in her lap. Now one of the marshmallows had little itty bitty nibble marks on one edge, but I still figured that was pretty good so I gave her as many marshmallows as she wanted.
What the marshmallow test measures is something we now call executive function – the brain’s decision making power. When we say executive function we sometimes use other terms interchangeably including self-regulation, self-discipline, self-control, or will power.
What is self-regulation? When we say “self-regulation” we have in mind at least three different things. I have some scenarios here on the handout that demonstrate different types. Readers.
1) At an amusement park, a ride breaks down just as the family reaches the front of the line. Although Emily is disappointed, instead of throwing a tantrum, she is able to refocus on riding another ride. (is that even possible? Last Valentine’s day at preschool, my daughter and I took all this time to make marshmallow pops, and then were told that we couldn’t give out any kind of food because of allergies. Fluffy, actually handled it fine and very maturely, and I was the one who threw the tantrum. I guess I need stronger self-regulation. But yeah, this whole broken ride thing seems like a tough one.)
2) 2) Despite the new bunny rabbit in the class terrarium, Sofia focuses on the teacher’s presentation and is prepared to answer questions.
3) Liam finishes his homework before playing video games because he wants to get good grades and go to a good college.
You can see that these things are all related, but with subtle differences. In the first amusement park ride example, the type of self-regulation is impulse control: the ability to pause before reacting impulsively and choose a more beneficial response.
2) Despite the new bunny rabbit in the class terrarium, Sofia focuses on the teacher’s presentation and is prepared to answer questions.
In this example, Sofia self-regulates by tuning out distractions or purposefully task-switching. The children in the famous marshmallow experiment videos who hid the marshmallows or hid themselves from the marshmallows were making concrete efforts to focus their attention on something else. I’m assuming Fluffy hid the marshmallows under the table to help her focus on something else as well.
3) Liam finishes his homework before playing video games because he wants to get good grades and go to a good college.
Liam and the marshmallow non-eaters display self-regulation in their ability postpone immediate gratification for a superior reward in the future.
So when we talk about executive function or self-regulation/ self-control/ self-discipline we have in mind such things as impulse control, tuning out distractions (focus) and delaying gratification.
You can see why you would want kids in schools to be able to do all of those things. The benefits of self-regulation are broad and intuitive. Children (and adults) with higher abilities to self-regulate are more successful academically and socially. Those with little self-regulation are more likely to experience financial and legal troubles.
One of the juiciest findings is that self-regulation as part of executive function is more highly correlated with academic success than I.Q.. That may be because although native ability is important to academic success, in the long run, the self-discipline to show up at class, do the homework, and study before the test instead of partying becomes more important than the ability to quickly understand concepts or intuit next steps
Socially, those who self-regulate well create more and better connections with others than those who do not. While impulsive wild-cards with the infamous “no filter” make for spicy reality television, rational people do not choose too many of them as friends.
What really made parents like me sit up and take notice a few years ago were findings published in 2007 and 2008 (4) that indicated that a new-fangled preschool program was producing magnificent increases in children’s ability to self-regulate and corresponding increases in academic development across the board. Kindergarteners were acting like second graders, peacefully writing out playtime goals and self-regulating up a storm. The results showed that kids who were in this special preschool program designed around the idea of instilling kids with greater self-regulation were outscoring everyone on things like literacy and math as well as any tests that required executive function. The self-regulation kids were outscoring the controls by 30 to 100 percent.
These studies were designed to test the efficacy of the Tools of the Mind preschool curriculum pioneered by Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova. Bodrova came over to the US from Russia in the 1990s and she found basically two camps of preschools, the play-based preschools and the pre-academic preschools. Those of us who have a lot of experience with preschool will recognize these camps. My daughter has been in four preschools, until we found the right fit, and I toured others.
Basically as Bodrova describes it she saw the preacademic preschools which emphasize reading writing and arithmetic. Their programs are similar to primary school. Then there are the play-based preschools which she described as chaotic. These play preschools tend to be child-led, you never know what if anything is going to be taught that day, it’s all about giving kids the breathing room to discover their world on their own terms instead of stressing them out before they even hit kindergarten.
Bodrova had studied the work of a Russian child development theorist called Lev Vygotsky. He was a contemporary of Piaget and Montessori, who died in Russia of TB in 1934 when he was just 38 years old. For Vygotsky, the real purpose of early-childhood education was not to learn content, like the letters of the alphabet or the names of shapes and colors and animals. The point was to learn how to think. Preschool was a time for children to learn to master their own thoughts. Bodrova with her colleague Leong set about creating a curriculum based on Vygotsky’s theories and implementing it in schools in Denver
Tools of the Mind includes 60+ activities that support the development of self-regulation, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. The novel feature of the program, and what people generally have in mind when they talk about Tools of the Mind, is something called mature extended dramatic play. Vygotsky considered dramatic play the training ground for children to practice controlling their impulses, and focusing their minds. Dramatic play is your good old fashioned make-believe where children choose roles and enact scenarios for an extended period, say 30-45 minutes per day. Now, there are 60 other facets of the program such things as
- Private speech
- Listening and speaking cards
But the hallmark feature of the program is mature dramatic play.
Dramatic play requires self-regulation, memory work, and focus because children have to remember their roles and confine their actions appropriately. When you’re playing that you’re a bear in the forest, your behavior is confined by the laws of beary-ness. When you’re playing restaurant with a group of kids, the group themselves will bring others back into the play scenario if one of them gets distracted and starts to play Legos.
The impact that pretend play has on self-regulation is demonstrated by the guard game. In this experiment, 4-year-old children are asked to hold perfectly still for as long as they can. Now, for my two year olds, that is approximately negative 2 seconds. But the four year olds could sort of do it. In the first instance, they were simply told to hold still for as long as they could and most of them couldn’t even make it one minute. Then in the second instance, they were told to pretend that they were guards at a factory who had to hold perfectly still. In this play scenario, they were able to pretend to hold still for more than four minutes. That’s quite astounding.
Knowing that kids are better at controlling themselves or self-regulating in the parameters of a game, we can use this trick in our parenting. When my little girl goes to the dentist, the dental hygienist doesn’t tell her to “hold still for the X-rays”. She tells her to pretend she’s a statue made of stone orr one of Woody’s toys who has to lie limp while a parent is in the room.
I remember years before I had kids, I was at Colonial Williamsburg for the fourth of july which was a horrible idea bc it was way too hot. There I saw my first set of triplets. The parents were there with their three boys were in front of us in line, and the whole time we were there it was a constant stream of correction: “Don’t kick the sand, don’t push your brother, don’t hang on the chain, don’t run away.” I remember feeling really sorry for the parents. Now it’s my turn. I dread taking all three kids to the store with me. It’s a constant stream of “Stay with the cart, don’t go where I can’t see you, come back here, don’t touch that, put that down.” But maybe when they are old enough to participate in dramatic play it will be a different story. We can pretend the cart is our ship and the aisles are shark infested waters. We need to sale to different islands to pick up different clues or treasures.
I’ve already seen the principle of make-believe work in a smaller way with my daughter Fluffy. She had a habit of playing with the iPad on the floor and then forgetting and leaving it on the floor. I consider that really dangerous because someone could step on it and break it. I tried to motivate her to remember to keep it off the floor with rewards and consequences. “I’ll take away one of your awesomeness points every time I find it on the floor.” But nothing really worked. Then finally, I told her that the floor was hot lava to the iPad and if she left the iPad on the hot lava it would melt and be ruined. After that suddenly she was able to remember.
When we talk about parenting, we often have in mind getting kids to do what we know is best for them. Safety, handling their emotions, learning, all these are the things we want them to do. There are two components to getting kids to regulate themselves. The first is incentives and the second is abilities. Much of parenting advice and literature is focused on the first component, the incentives. We are all trying to give the right rewards and praise for “good behavior” and the right consequences or corrections for “bad behavior”. But if we spend all our time on incentives we might miss out on the other component which is giving the kids the skills and tools to be able to do the things they know they want to and should. Even if kids desire rewards, their young minds might not have developed the impulse control to do what they need to to get those rewards. Because pretend play seems to increase children’s ability to self-regulate, it might be an important component in raising safe, emotinally healthy kids who learn well.
Bodrova and Leong point to another intriguing experiment as support for their Tools of the Mind curriculum which shows how dramatic play improved memory.
In this experiment, the kids were asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. First the researchers recorded how many of the words the children could remember on average after they had a certain amount of time to study the list. Then in the second instance, they were asked to play grocery store. They were given a list of unrelated words as a grocery list that they were supposed to memorize to do their shopping at the grocery store. When this element of pretend play was introduced, the kids doubled the number of words they were able to remember.
As I’ve said, there are many parts of the Tools of the Mind curriculum, but we’re going to focus on the How-To of the mature dramatic play element.
There is a difference in the way kids play today. I don’t know how much of this is manufactured, but there is a sense that 80 or 90 years ago when Vygotsky was doing his theorizing or even 50 years ago before the entertainment age was full blown, kids played differently than they do today. The older kids watched their parents working and doing duties and started play scenarios based on those experiences. Then, the older children would teach the younger kids how to participate in scenarios like House or Cowboys and Indians. These days we don’t let the kids out to go find friends in the neighborhood all day and then call them back for dinner. We live in the age of the play date and the screen, so those opportunities for kids to learn to play make-believe are limited. For most toddlers and preschoolers their parents or care-givers are their primary playmates. So now we have to teach what we might have taken for granted in another period.
I’ve listed seven steps on the handout for how to introduce mature extended dramatic play with preschoolers. With two year olds, you want to use objects symbolically like drinking out of cups and stirring with bowls, those are the building blocks. But when the kids are 3-5 this is prime time to introduce plot and characters, in other words, scenarios and roles.
- Provide rich source material.
Vygotsky and his followers reject the notion that kids are born with this innate well-spring of wonderful imagination that creates ideas ex nihilo, our out of nothing. Kids do say the darndest things, but those things usually come from source material: images they have seen, stories they’ve heard, shows, experiences, conversations they’ve listened to. Their young minds may put them together in new and innovative ways. Unlike our adult brains that have so much experience with the sky being blue that we stop wondering what it would be like if it were yellow, children don’t have as much experience to override their creativity. But the point is that their fantasies and imaginations come from some kind of source material.
In the Tools classroom, for the week before the kids start playing a new scenario the class will read books and stories about that scenario. If they’re going to be playing fire department next week, then this week storytime is all about firemen.
I’d bet we all have played kitchen or cooking with our kids. For Vygotsky and his followers, putting a plate in the oven and taking it out can be play and can be fun, but it isn’t as useful as a rich play scenario. So before you start a cooking play scenario, you may want to have your child bake with you. Show them the recipe, the ingredients, the measuring, the mixing, the baking, the cooling, the decorating. Then they have that source material to draw on when they play with their friends instead of simply putting a plastic cupcake on a plate and bringing it to you. Cupcake plating is great, but Vygotsky thinks we can do better.
2. Make a plan.
In the Tools classroom, kids start their day with a playplan. Even if they can’t write or read, they record their intention for the day, “Today I will play restaurant.” “Today I will be a server.” When they begin, their playplan may be a scribble to represent their intention. Later, it will be a scribble for each word. Then maybe the first letter of each word, and eventually in Kindergarten or earlier, they will write the sentence. The actual play scenario doesn’t have to follow the plan exactly, so long as the children are still participating and playing a role. The planning gives the play an intentional aspect that reinforces the necessity of self-regulation.
That’s the kids side of the planning. On the parents’ side, it’s useful to think of what kind of vocabulary you want to be introducing and reinforcing with the scenario. Instead of thinking, “we’re going to play wedding” (which is creepy for these kids to be even thinking about marriage at 4 years old), you can think, “I’m going to teach the words bride, groom, aisle, vows, wedding march, first dance, bouquet,” and so forth.
3. Prepare space and props.
Tools classrooms have lots of space and lots of props. The whole classroom could be decked out as a restaurant one week and decked out as an ice skating rink the next. For me, it’s tempting to buy all the make believe sets and costumes. I know my daughter definitely loves her castle tent and her dresses and her kitchen with all its utensils and accoutrement. Vygotsky would actually prefer for the kids to use symbolic props or props they make themselves rather than the premade plastic kind. A box represents the oven, a paper represents the plate. That use of symbols provides an extra step for their memories and an extra level of concentration that is supposed to be good training. Plus if you’re using boxes and papers, you don’t have to have a whole set for every scenario.
4. Model behavior.
In the beginning you have to show the kids how to play. For playing baby, you model the diaper changes, the feeding, the burping the napping.
5. Ask questions to guide play.
Then start asking questions. “Oh, your baby is crying? Is she hungry or tired or messy? What are you going to do?” Later your questions guide them to new plot. Instead of “should we take them for a stroll in the park?” you can switch to “what should we do next?
6. Redirect to extend play.
With 3 year olds who are just starting, this can be the hardest part. They don’t have the attentions spans that you do, but remember that you are actually attempting to lengthen their attention span through practice. The Tools curriculum suggests you should aim for 15 minutes of dramatic play in the beginning. That means you may have to bring their attention back to the scenario several times. As they learn to repeat scenarios and expand them, their play will extend to 45 minutes.
7. Step out.
As soon as possible, you want the kids to be doing their play with little to no intervention from the adults. As parents of multiples, we have an advantage in that every day is a play date.
Now most of us have played kitchen and doctor with the kids at some point on our own. Many of us have played them ad nauseum, to the point that if we eat one more faux brownie we’re going to shoot ourselves. I wanted to give out some ideas of play scenarios with different steps. As we go through them think about different roles that can be played and different vocabulary that can be used. And I left spacea the end because I’m hoping others will have suggestions I’ve missed.
Refer to play scenario list in handout (below).
For the Trick-or-Treating scenario when I was teaching co-op preschool with 3 year olds, they loved playing the people in the houses and the trick or treaters. They didn’t change costume, they just told us what their new costume was. Then they practiced, knocking, saying please and thank you, interacting at the door with each other politiely, gathering all their candy and eating it. It sounded kind of thin as a scenario to me, but they could have kept it up seemingly indefinitely. They just ate it up.
When I was on bedrest, I had to do a lot of playing with my daughter from the couch. She was very into fairies and magic, so we would play that she had a sick animal who needed a spell to get better. I would send her on quests to retrieve all these special ingredients from around the house like dew drops from a lily in the dining room or whatever and we’d put them together to save the animal. It was a huge hit.
This past year we enrolled Fluffy in an Act it Out class in Vienna community center. For forty-five minutes, the kids read a story and then practice acting it out. It was Fluffy’s favorite class of all time, better than swimming, ballet, tennis, everything. She loved it so much.
Now I do want to say that the evidence of the efficacy of the Tools of the Mind program is mixed. The initial studies were stellar, but then three large, randomized, two-year trials published results about this time last year that found that Tools kids performed just as well as controls in a variety of other preschool programs on literacy, math and executive function measures—but no better. We don’t know are whether there will be lasting benefits for those kids in the program down the road, like the marshmallow test kids when they take their SATs. I also don’t know exactly what measures of executive function they used. The one thing that the Tools kids really did outscore the controls on was playing make believe.
There’s another study recently completed that is supposed to be publishing results soon, maybe we’ll know more then. For the time being we have strong evidence of two things.
1) Tools is a viable preschool curriculum. It does prepare kids for primary school.
2) Kids love it. Forgetting all about the Ivy League, kids love playing make believe. They love playing with their parents. They love playing with other kids. When my daughter started at Wesley UM Preschool in Vienna, her biggest complaint was that the other kids didn’t want to play make-believe as much as she did.
If you would like to go beyond restaurant, here are some ideas of scenarios to practice. As tempting as it is to buy dramatic play props for all of these scenarios, Vygotsky (the Russian theorist who started it all) prefers to have the children use symbolic props like a lego for a orange, a blanket for a tent, etc. because it requires both imagination and short term memory work.
- Airplane – buying tickets, checking baggage, handing in tickets, boarding plane. Flight attendant serving drinks, pilot navigating terbulance and landing.
- Animals — for example, a bear: hibernating, climbing trees, fishing, looking for honey and berries, chasing deer.
- Beauty shop – doing hair, nails, facials, using curlers and brushes. Also barber shop with shaving cream and spoons for razors.
- Camping – setingt up a tent. Making a campfire out of sticks or legos. Lighting the fire, cooking dinner, roasting marshmallows. Telling stories, singing camp songs. Fishing, hunting.
- Car wash – washing, waxing, vacuuming, paying, tipping.
- Child care – diapering, feeding, burping, rocking, reading to, playing with, putting to sleep.
- Dentist – checking teeth, drilling, pulling teeth.
- Doctor or veterinarian — reading magazines in the waiting room, taking vitals and history, diagnosing illness, administering shots, bandaging, giving balloons and sticker.
- Driving/Police – driving cars, turning on sirens, pulling people over, writing tickets.
- Fashion designer, stylist – choosing dresses for models. Accessorizing looks, walking the runway.
- Firemen – lifting weights, driving to fire, climbing, breaking windows with axes, putting out fire with hoses, saving people, jumping onto a tramp.
- Grocery store, with registers and money, weighing food, choosing items, checking out, bagging groceries.
- House cleaning – dusting, vacuuming, ironing, folding, washing dishes, sweeping
- Ice cream store – choose flavors, scoop out combinations, pay. Eating ice cream.
- Mechanic – fixing cars, appliances,
- Movie theater. Buying tickets and popcorn. Some of the kids acting out the movie.
- Olympics—racing, doing gymnastics, judging, standing on platform for awards ceremony
- Pirates – sailing, searching for treasure, fighting off bad guys.
- Post office. Writing letters, stamping them with stickers, posting, delivering, opening and reading
- Restaurant — hostess seating, telling specials, ordering, cooking, serving courses, eating, paying.
- Shoe store – trying on all different kinds, walking around for fit. Paying.
- Story reenactment – any book or fairytale
- Swimming pool – lifeguard patrolling, saving drowning people, slowing down runners, swimming races.
- Trial – judge overseeing, attorneys questioning witnesses, jury deliberating.
- Trick or treating – dressing up, going from house to house to get candy.
- Woodshop – cutting boards with saws, using hammers and nails to build tables and chairs.
Other games used to enhance or exercise self-regulation:
- Stop, Go, Slow, Fast. You make signs for each word, then use any action and children follow the signs displayed in random order.
- Simon Says
- Checkers and other board games that require children to enforce rules on themselves and others (unlike video games which auto-enforce rules)
- Musical chairs
- Musical drawing — Children draw different shapes for each type of music that plays and stop when the music pauses.
Here’s Fluffy playing Scarlet O’Hara. You can see she’s moved beyond dress up and is really playing make-believe.