Playing Prepares Children for Life Challenges
> 3/26/2008 2:49:34 PM

Observe the average preschool classroom in the moments when the teacher gives up direct supervision. You are sure to see make-believe battles and competitions with rules that cannot be read in any rule-book. Children have always made up games to occupy their overflowing energy, but it is only recently that schools have begun conceiving of play not as a waste of time but rather as a useful way to facilitate child development.

The Tools of the Mind system, based on the theories of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, offers not just a coherent pedagogical philosophy, but also an array of concrete tools for crafting play that prepares children for the rigorous world they will one day have to navigate. While Vygostky's theories languished for many decades, renewed attention, such as this article in the Chicago Tribune, has followed a batch of studies on the trainability of executive function.

Executive function is the ability to control impulses and deliberately guide behavior towards goals. People with high executive function can resist taking a second piece of cake, and focus on completing their taxes on time. Some studies have suggested that executive function is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Dr. Adele Diamond has published a bevy of studies on the importance of cognitive function, culminating in an evaluation, published recently in Science Magazine, of whether preschool curricula has the ability to improve it. Dr. Diamond split 147 students into regular classes and Tools of the Mind classes. Testing two years later found that students in Tools of the Mind classes had the executive function of significantly older children.

Healthy play does not mean total anarchy. Rather, students are asked to regulate themselves rather than have their play dictated by an adult. For example, if the children in a Tools of the Mind class want to make up a game, they must first find partners and then record their intention to play that game together. There are some games that are governed by adults, but these are designed to improve impulse control rather than goal orientation. For example, NPR describes a variation of Freeze that has children dance to music and then stop with the music just like the normal version. But the Tools of the Mind version includes an additional challenge: the children must freeze in the position represented by a doll that that the teacher arranges. While they may want to assume the position of the doll during the dance, they must resist that impulse until the music ends.

As more parents and teachers recognize the value of play, more schools will hopefully make carefully designed games and self-directed free periods an integral part of the curriculum. These games have always existed, Simon Says read on, but their value is only now becoming clear. Tools of the Mind is child's play; meaning, of course, that it is both fun and a valuable tool for shaping minds.


My daughters, in 1st and 2nd grade, have "center" time each day. They rotate between centers with reading, puzzles, sand, blocks, and home (with dolls and misc toys). They are able to play on their own in the centers and sometimes with another classmate. This is always a favorite part of their school day, besides recess.
Posted by: Amy 3/26/2008 5:49:00 AM

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