Sunday, March 3, 2013

Can the right kinds of play teach self-control?

I found this article quite interesting because I am currently in a Toy Design class, so reading about the psychology behind it really puts toy design in a different perspective.

This article is about the study of kindergarteners in a town in New Jersey. Most of the students in the class were from low-income families and working-class families. Most of the students were also Hispanic. Centered around three students, Abigail, Henry, and Jocelyn, the article notes about each of their actions and how they respond to each other.

When waiting to read a story, Abigail was trying very hard to to write out the title of the novel they were about to listen to on their headphones. The other two kids were waiting on her because the rule of the listening center was that you don't start listening to the story until everyone is ready. Really, it was interesting to see each child overcoming their different impulses. Abigail had to resist the temptation to drop the pencil and give up writing the whole title to please her friends. Jocelyn and Henry had to resist the temptation to rip the pencil out of Abby's hand to start the CD.

The term "executive function" has emerged in the world of psychology recently. This term 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. The ability of young children to exhibit this kind of control is a strong indicator of short-term and long-term success. Some studies even show that self-regulation skills have been more reliable to predict academic than I.Q. testing. The one problem with this, however, is that this quality is seen less and less with young American children. An estimation across the country says that more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel they are unable to control them.

It is not like teachers have not tried to teach kids self-control. Kids were given rewards for completing their homework, they were helped to reorganize their lockers, gone through self-control exercises. After some studies were done after these exercises, there was a zero effect on everything.

Abigail, Jocelyn, & Henry are enrolled in the Tools of the Mind program, where they are dedicated to improving the self-regulations abilities of young children, starting at the age of 3 years. This program is based off of the teachers of Lev Vygotsky. This Tools of the Mind program is now being taught to about 18,000 prekindergarten and kindergarten students in 12 states across the country.

The Tools of the Mind program focuses on developing self-regulation play: mature dramatic play. This involves extensive make-believe scenarios that include multiple children and can go on for as long as days. Jocelyn, Henry, & Abigail have spent hours dressing up in firefighter hats, wedding gowns, cooking make-believe hamburgers, pouring nonexistent tea, and doing some serious role-playing.

Some people believe that prekindergarten should be preparing for academic study, while others believe that it is a time to allow children to explore the world, learn social skills, and have free, unconstrained fun. Some say that nowadays, kids are being too pressured to learn how to read, therefore making kindergarten a place of stress and distress. It is said if kids are allowed to develop at their own paces, they will be happier and healthier and less stressed out.

Vygotsky believed that the real purpose of early-childhood education was to learn how to think, not to learn colors, shapes, & animals. He said that children at that age are slaves to their environment, like sponges, soaking up everything around them. He said they are unable to control their reactions or direct their interests, they just respond to whatever is put in front of them. Vygotsky believed that it is important to employ various tools, tricks, and habits that train the mind to work at a higher level.

Many other child psychologists argued that imaginary play was an immature form of expression, a preliminary stage of development. Vygotsky argued back that a child's ability to play creatively with other children is a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator. He argued that dramatic play was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves to conquer their own unruly minds. Some could argue that dramatic play is associated with freedom, but he viewed play as very restricted. For example, when a boy role-plays as a father making breakfast, he is limited by all the rules of daddy-ness. Others playing with him would also restrict him when he falls out of the confines of "daddy-ness."

Research actually supports Vygotsky's views. It showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations. It shows that dramatic play improves their levels of self-control and language skills.

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