Friday, March 28, 2008

Learning to Play?

A few weeks ago I heard an interesting segment on NPR entitled “Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control.” As an advocate of creative play, and mother to a boy with difficulties self-regulating, I was intrigued. What is the connection between open-ended play and self-regulation? It turns out, what I heard not only surprised me, but required me to rethink my assumptions about play environments and children today.

The NPR news report focuses on a particular preschool that employs the Tools of the Mind curriculum. The basic underpinnings of the Tools of the Mind program is that children today are not often in situations that require them to learn to self regulate. What is self-regulation and why is it so important? Self regulation is the ability to manage one’s feelings, behaviors and impulses. Children that are able to manage themselves better (for example, resist the urge to talk with friends during circle time or get upset because s/he wasn’t first in line) are also better able to focus, pay attention and learn.

Listening to the NPR program, I was able to hear the teachers and children in the school interact. But what I heard completely surprised me. Why? Because it didn’t sound like creative play to me—the children were required to plan out their play scenario before they even picked up a block. In fact, they needed to fill out paperwork about their intended game, draw a picture of it and verbally reiterate their intentions. Yikes, I thought. What’s up with that? Talk about an adult-driven, overly-structured environment! But I kept listening.

As it turns out, the theory behind the curricula is rooted in the belief that today children play very differently than they did when I was a child in the late 60s and 70s. Where at the age of 4 I walked out the door with my older brother and sister to join in the neighborhood kids’ game of kickball or pretend “school,” children today are highly circumscribed in their movements (allow my 4 year old to roam the neighborhood with the big kids? No way.) They spend a lot more time safely indoors with adult supervision—in a daycare or karate class with children exactly their age, or at home with the TV or some other type of electronic entertainment endlessly looping. So, whereas I learned “mature” play skills from older children in the neighborhood, children today are missing out on what we all took for granted: multi-age interaction and interaction that isn’t being regulated by an adult.

And what do many children do today in their "spare time?" Music and Movement class? Adult-led. Karate? Adult-led. Art class? Gymnastics? Baseball? All adult-led. All of these extra-curricular activities require the child to listen to an adult, and, essentially, be regulated by an adult. And although the classes are stimulating and beneficial in specific ways, children are not practicing how to self-regulate as they would during make-believe play with other children. Older children—referred to as “play mentors” by child specialists—model more mature and creative play that engages symbolic thinking, exercises the executive brain functions (i.e., planning, rule acquisition, ability to control impulses) and leads to mature self-regulating behaviors. With all of the enrichment classes and scheduled same-age play dates, the opportunities for children to learn mature play skills from older children are few and far between. The basic emotional and cognitive skills that we took for granted while playing with the neighborhood kids aren't being learned by a whole generation of children.

So then what does this curriculum featured on NPR have to do with creating opportunities for children to learn from “play mentors”? Aren’t these classroom situations still adult-led? Not exactly. Let’s back up. Have you ever watched your child talk to themselves during play? I never really thought much about it when my 4 year old would talk out loud to no one in particular about what his car was doing or what it was going to do (Cooper is freakishly obsessed with cars). Apparently during make-believe play children carry on this inner dialog about what they are doing which, essentially, is a form of self-regulation. They think it (plan the intended play); they say it (“super-fast race car is going to rescue race car no. 55 from the sharks!”); and then they do it. Kids also carry on that dialog during make believe play with each other—plus additional steps such as negotiation. So, back we are to the Tools of the Mind program. That paperwork and planning? It’s mimicking the inner dialog children would be doing under circumstances where make believe play happens often and with multi-age children. In a nutshell, the program is giving children opportunities to exercise mature make-believe play skills, learn to develop those skills and, in turn, learn self-regulation. By mimicking the process of inner dialog, and modeling "play mentor" behavior, the Tools of the Mind program taps that part of the brain that requires executive functioning—an increasingly underused cognitive skill for children who spend a great deal of time being entertained.

It does make you wonder about the rise in children with ADHD. Certainly there are children whose behavior is not a result of missed make-believe play opportunities. But, what about the other children who show ADHD characteristics—impulsive, emotional and unfocused—yet are not unduly hindered by the learning challenges faced by those clearly diagnosed with the disorder? Why the rise in children with this type of emotional and cognitive challenges? Many specialists seem to think it’s a direct result of lost emotional and cognitive learning opportunities usually met through pretend play.

Over the years I've noticed that my older son--who has sensory integration difficulties and trouble self regulating-- plays more calmly and with more purpose when he is with an older playmate. It is interesting to note that processing sensory information is done in the executive regions of the brain. Would my son benefit from a more make-believe play time? Possibly, but I think that he might benefit from make-believe play time with more mature play mentors. Since he is my oldest child, he doesn't have the opportunities that my younger children have to learn from a bigger kid. Except that when it comes down to it, I'm a big kid. I'm not as good as an 8 year old boy, but I can certainly fill in some gaps.

Stay tuned for suggestions on how you can find opportunities for your child to engage in make-believe play both with other kids and at home.


Cricket said...

This is fascinating. I heard the last couple minutes of the same story on NPR. And what you say links into other things I have heard lately. Like yourself, it is my oldest child who suffers from self-regulatory difficulties. She has always had plenty of same age playmates; from the time she was three weeks old, in fact. So when the pediatrician blamed her issues on a lack of social interaction, I just rolled my eyes. But perhaps there is something to it. Perhaps what she really needed was to be in a playgroup of older kids. Recently I read Helping Children with Autism Learn: Treatment Approaches for Parents and Professionals by Bryna Siegel. One of the (many sensible) suggestions she makes is to have the autistic child play with a peer who is several years older. Put an 8 year old with a 5 year old. That seems to go along with Tools of the Mind.

Recently I was trying to teach my daughter to play "Colored Eggs", a game my siblings and I played endlessly as children. The general idea is this: one child is the mama hen, one is the fox, and the rest are colored eggs. It is a basic chase-type game where the fox tries to get the eggs. But trying to explain the idiosyncrasies of the game, or the social dynamic of the players, was near impossible. Yet when I was a child, there was no question about these things. It was all taught by example from the older children to the younger.

It makes me start to wonder if Autism, SID, ADHD and the like are societal issues which have been a long time coming.

Jen said...

So interesting Cricket. You know, in simplistic terms, it's not unlike the game of tennis--which, unfortunately, I don't play, but I digress. My point, however, is that if you play tennis, you always want to play with someone who is better than you. That way, you learn and get better. Simple concept, right?

I think as parents there is something we can do for our children--in the absence of the better alternative which would be other children. But, the larger social issue seems a bit overwhelming, doesn't it?