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Play to self regulate
Detail: Tools of the Mind is a relatively new program dedicated to improving the self-regulation abilities of young children, starting as early as age 3. Tools of the Mind is based on the teachings of Lev Vygotsky, for whom 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, but to learn how to think. And the best way for children to do that, Vygotsky believed, especially at this early age, is to employ various tools, tricks and habits that train the mind to work at a higher level.

Vygotsky maintained that at 4 or 5, a child’s ability to play creatively with other children was in fact a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator, including her vocabulary, her counting skills or her knowledge of the alphabet. Dramatic play, he said, was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves, to conquer their own unruly minds. When a young boy is acting out the role of a daddy making breakfast, he is limited by all the rules of daddy-ness. Some of those limitations come from his playmates: if he starts acting like a baby (or a policeman or a dinosaur) in the middle of making breakfast, the other children will be sure to steer him back to the eggs and bacon. But even beyond that explicit peer pressure, Vygotsky would say, the child is guided by the basic principles of play. Make-believe isn’t as stimulating and satisfying — it simply isn’t as much fun — if you don’t stick to your role. And when children follow the rules of make-believe and push one another to follow those rules, he said, they develop important habits of self-control.

Over the past 15 years, Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova, scholars of child development based in Denver, have turned Vygotsky’s philosophy into a full-time curriculum for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, complete with training manuals and coaches and professional-development classes for teachers. Tools of the Mind has grown steadily — though its expansion has sped up in the past few years — and it now is being used to teach 18,000 prekindergarten and kindergarten students in 12 states around the country. These scholars believe that their program can reliably teach self-regulation skills to pretty much any child — poor or rich; typical achievers as well as many of those who are considered to have special needs.

At the heart of the Tools of the Mind methodology is a simple but surprising idea: that the key to developing self-regulation is play, and lots of it. But not just any play. The necessary ingredient is what Leong and Bodrova call “mature dramatic play”: complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours, even days.

There are not yet firm experimental data that prove that Tools of the Mind works. But two early studies that began in the late 1990s in Denver showed some promising results: after a year in the program, students did significantly better than a similar group on basic measures of literacy ability. In the end, the most lasting effect of the Tools of the Mind studies may be to challenge some of our basic ideas about the boundary between work and play. In Tools of the Mind classrooms work looks a lot like play and play is treated more like work.

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Source: Based on a story by Paul Tough, “Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” in The New York Times Magazine, September 25, 2009
Date: October 10 2009