Play is serious business for young children. When preschoolers stage a tea party for stuffed animals or visit the moon in a rocket ship, they’re doing more than giving their parents a moment’s peace. They’re improving their cognitive abilities, as the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested almost a century ago.
This sort of play gives children an early experience of regulating their own behavior to achieve an internally motivated goal. Make-believe games have rules: an astronaut can’t act like a baby, and a school teacher can’t act like a firefighter. If a child fails to behave appropriately, the game won’t go smoothly, and playmates are likely to complain.
To play imaginary games, children must negotiate with others to plan scenarios, suppress their impulses to stay within the agreed boundaries, simulate emotions, and envision the consequences of a variety of actions. Presumably because of extensive practice in these skills, children who participate in complex, imaginative play are better at language, figuring out what others are thinking and feeling, social competence, and cognitive flexibility.
Such complex behavior needs to be learned. Before age three, toddlers’ main partners for imaginary games are their parents, who gradually help children improve their play abilities. A key skill for parents in promoting imaginative play is following the child’s lead.
Rather than directing the play, parents should respond with ideas that flow from the child’s actions. For example, when a toddler puts her Barbie into a cup, a responsive parent might ask, “Is the doll going for a swim?” A directive parent might say, “Dolls don’t belong in the water. They go in the dollhouse.” Children whose parents were responsive at 18 months of age show more extended and imaginative play at four years, while children whose parents were directive spend more time in the immature pattern of merely touching or looking at toys.
Children learn best when support from parents (or teachers) allows them to achieve slightly more advanced results than they could manage alone. Effective parents offer hints, prompts, and strategies when the child seems to be stuck, while allowing the child to do as much as possible independently. Psychologists call this approach “scaffolding” after the construction technique that provides temporary support for buildings as they’re going up. As the child becomes more capable, the parent backs off to let the child take control of the newly learned skill, while continuing to offer support for more difficult tasks as needed.
Providing support for children’s autonomy, rather than giving orders or taking over the task, encourages children to develop initiative and take responsibility for their own behavior. Similar approaches are effective across many areas of development, from learning to get along with
other children to completing homework assignments.
At home or at school, other games with rules—such as board games or red light/green light—also reward children for strengthening their self-regulation ability through practice. The diabolical Reverse Simon Says is particularly effective (“If Simon says touch your nose, you have to touch your toes” and so on).
Research shows that two preschool programs originally designed to help the disadvantaged, Montessori and Tools of the Mind, build children’s ability to regulate their own actions. The programs share an emphasis on self-motivated behavior in a structured context, allowing children to choose activities that interest them from among a limited set of options. The environment is both warm and orderly, and teachers provide support aimed at promoting independence and improving cognitive abilities in a developmental sequence.
Tools of the Mind, based on Vygotsky’s work, uses structured imaginary play, along with a variety of scaffolding techniques, to build self-control. Children who were randomly assigned to one or two years of Tools of the Mind preschool showed substantially better performance on a demanding cognitive control task at age five than children in another preschool program with similar academic content. Parents can use many of these techniques at home—such as asking the child to hold a picture of a mouth when it’s his turn to talk and an ear when it’s time to listen.
Traditional Montessori education does not encourage imaginary play because Maria Montessori believed that it was better for children to participate in real activities, though some modern programs are more flexible in this regard. The Montessori curriculum, though, does present progressively more challenging activities that children find engaging, thus following the basic principles of self-control training. One study found that children who were assigned to Montessori preschool by lottery at age three showed more cognitive flexibility and better social cognition two years later than children who lost the lottery and went to other schools.
Preschool self-control is important because it’s a major element of school readiness, but even in older children, it’s not too late to improve self-control. Next week’s post will explore how to do that.
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