“Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control”

By , February 27, 2008 9:01 pm

Tomorrow morning (February 28, 2008) on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, a story will air that is a natural extension of the NPR piece that I wrote about on February 21st in my post: Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function. According to the February 21st piece, children today no longer engage in imaginative, creative play. Unfortunately it turns out that imaginative play is essential for the formation of self-control and self-regulation. These are obviously very important skills in life and are a more accurate predictor of success in school than is IQ.

Tomorrow’s NPR story, Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control, describes a preschool program based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, entitled “Tools of the Mind” (currently being implemented in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon). The program was developed by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong of the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

According to the description of the program on the Metropolitan State College of Denver website, Lev Vygotsky believed that

… until children learn to use mental tools, their learning is largely controlled by the environment: they attend only to the things that are the brightest or loudest and they can remember something only if has been repeated many times. AFTER children master mental tools, they can become in charge of their own learning by attending and remembering in an intentional and purposeful way. Similar to how using mental tools transforms children’s cognitive behaviors, they can also transform their physical, social and emotional behaviors. From being “slaves to the environment,” children become “masters of their own behavior.” As children are taught and practice an increasing number of various mental tools, they transform not only their external behaviors, but also their minds, leading to the emergence of higher mental functions.

Alix Spiegel’s NPR report describes a visit to the Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center in Bridgeton, N.J. where the Tools of the Mind program is being implemented for preschoolers. The point of the Tools of the Mind program is to intensively build “executive function” (ie. “self-regulation”) skills. Please read the NPR transcript for a detailed description of the activities observed at the center. It is quite interesting.

Adele Diamond, executive function researcher and professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, has observed and studied the Tools of the Mind program (she is in no way affiliated with the program). Here is her description of the first time she observed a Tools of the Mind class:

“I was totally blown away. The kids were sitting together working quietly. It was like a second-grade classroom instead of a preschool classroom. I couldn’t believe it.”

Ms. Diamond conducted a study following 147 preschoolers for two years. Half the children were in enrolled in a Tools of the Mind class, the other half were enrolled in a regular preschool curriculum. After two years, the children were all given an executive function assessment. The results? The regular school kids performed roughly “at chance” while the Tools kids did much better (about 85% correct).

Could reduced executive function skills be a contributing factor to the rising number of kids diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)? Ms. Diamond and a few other researchers think so. Professor Diamond says:

“I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all but many just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation, the executive functions early.”

This is really fascinating to me, but sad. How could today’s children have lost all their natural and apparently important imaginative play behavior? Why do we have to have programs like Tools of the Mind to help these children self-regulate?

Is it because today’s kids spend much of their free time watching TV, playing video games and taking formal, adult-lead instruction for sports or other extra-curricular, “enrichment” activities? That’s what executive function researchers seem to think.


Be sure to listen to the story tomorrow morning (February 28) on NPR’s Morning Edition, or check the transcript page for a link to the audio version.


Metropolitan State College of Denver

Tools of the Mind Program

Lev Vygotsky


Photo courtesy of morguefile.com and photographer tangle_eye.

Fun Wooden Math Game (Toy Recommendation)

By , February 26, 2008 5:58 pm

Santa gave the 4 Way Countdown Wooden Game to my 7 year-old daughter because he was hoping it might be a fun way to work on memorizing math facts.

The board consists of a simple square wooden box. Each side has ten wooden numbered bars that flip up and down. The object of the game is to be the first to flip up all your numbers. Players take turns rolling two dice. They can add, subtract, multiply, or divide the two numbers appearing on the dice in order to equal a number on one of their bars. They then flip up that bar. To make things a little more interesting, if you roll and eleven, you can of course flip up the 1 (6-5=1) or, instead, make another player flip all their bars back down. Fun, but beware: if you roll a twelve, then you must flip down all your bars!

This makes for a surprisingly entertaining game. What I like best about the game is how it can grow with your child’s abilities. Younger children can play by simply adding and subtracting. Multiplication and division can be added later as math skills progress.

I must also mention that even I like playing this one. Since many games aimed at children are deadly boring for grownups, I am always excited to find one that is at least tolerable, at best fun.

So, did Santa pick wisely? Yes! This game makes basic math facts easier to memorize and is way more fun than flash cards. Thank you Santa!

4 Way Countdown is also fairly practical as a travel game. The box is about 10.5″ x 10.5″ and 1.5″ thick, doesn’t weigh much, and the only loose pieces are the two dice. Dice are rolled inside the box, so are unlikely to escape during play.

Great math practice for 2 to 4 players (or you could even play alone). It would also be a great addition to a homeschool classroom.

PS. My daughter just saw me writing this post and wants to play 4 Way Countdown now.  I’ve got to go so we can get in a quick game before dinner!

Alphabet/Letters – Alphabet Scavenger Hunt (Weekly Unplugged Project)

By , February 24, 2008 10:01 pm

This week’s Unplugged Project theme was Alphabet/Letters. All the usual ideas seemed, well, usual. Picking up on a hide-and-seek theme proposed by my 5 year-old, I invented an Alphabet Scavenger Hunt.

First we cut 6 and a half sheets of construction paper into fourths making 26 uniformly-sized pieces. Math project anyone?? Then my oldest wrote the alphabet on the remaining half sheet of construction paper. We counted out 13 letters and made a line between the two sections. Each of my two children (5 and 7) was assigned half the alphabet to write, one letter per rectangle.

The children then hid someplace else while I distributed the letters throughout the main living area of our house. I won’t say that I really “hid” them, although some of them were harder to find than others. I wanted this to be part memory game too. I explained to them that they would see a lot of letters while searching and would have to try and remember them so they would be able to find them easily later in the game.

Once everything was hidden, I called the kids back and gave them a letter to find. They searched until someone found it and brought it to me. That child got one point. I used the alphabet list previously written by my oldest to cross off the found letter. This game continued with much raucous laughter and high-speed running around while I cooked dinner in relative peace (all I had to do was assign a letter to find, cross it off, and record points).

The memory-game aspect seemed to work as planned since the children found the letters more and more quickly as we progressed through the game. They loved it!

We will definitely keep these letters and play this again. Give it a try with your kids. The game could be easily adapted for different ages by making the letters harder or easier to find.


So what did you come up with for Alphabet/Letters? If you joined us this week, please put your link in Mr. Linky. Mr. Linky has been a tad unreliable lately, so please leave a comment too, that way we will know where to find you if I have to delete him. I look forward to seeing what else is possible with Alphabet/Letters!


Next week’s Unplugged Project theme is:


You don’t have to compose a symphony.  It doesn’t even have to be anything we can hear.  Just try and think of something musically-related (however remotely) and go with it. Dance, sing, use some old piano books for a collage.  Hey…the letters A through G are even musically-related!  See how loose the Unplugged Project is?  The key is to just have fun with your kids.  Anything goes!

If you are at all interested, please feel free to jump in and join our project next week. As they say, the more the merrier!

Kids and Movies: Informed Decision-Making

By , February 23, 2008 9:20 am

We all know that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) movie ratings system is ridiculous. The MPAA is hardly a neutral party, in fact it describes itself as “the voice and advocate of the American motion picture, home video and television industries.” Even disregarding the fact that that MPAA is financed and controlled by the motion picture industry itself, in my mind any kind of general label to be applied to a movie could never be an accurate indicator of what is appropriate or inappropriate for all children.

The MPAA bases its ratings on age. All parents know that just because someone else’s 13 year-old can handle and enjoy a more “mature” movie, doesn’t mean that your more sensitive 13 year-old is ready for such a movie yet. Additionally, parents differ in what they want their children exposed to. Some parents are more liberal and less bothered by bad language for example, whereas others take a more protective approach.

So how can parents make informed decisions about what movies to allow their children to see? Do parents have to pre-screen every potential film themselves? That is hardly a practical solution.

My wonderfully well-informed friend Wishy told me about a website that she uses to check out family movies before either seeing them on-screen or renting the video, and I have recently added it to the “Useful Websites” category of my blogroll (left sidebar).

Common Sense Media is a “non-partisan, not-for-profit organization” providing “trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume.” This organization has its own rating system whereby it determines its own minimum age for appropriateness, as well as providing a 5-star quide to the quality of a movie. Just because a movie is age-appropriate doesn’t mean you want to sit through 2 hours of nonsense, right?

Although Common Sense Media is more neutral in its ratings than the MPAA, as I mentioned above, simply assigning a one-size-fits-all recommended age is not always very helpful. In my mind, the best part of Common Sense Media’s reviews is the “Content Grid.” This is where you can find out the nitty gritty details about a movie’s Sexual Content, Violence, Language and Message (Social Behavior, Commercialism, and Drug/Alcohol/Tobacco use).

Do you want to know exactly what bad language occurs in a film and how often? Do you want to know how many times the hero picks up a can of Diet Coke? Do you want to know if there is gross comedy involving bodily functions or any potentially scary scenes? This is where you’ll find that information. Warning: this detailed information can be considered a “spoiler” for some, but as a parent seeking information, aren’t you really looking for a “spoiler?”

So go to the site, pick a movie, and read the review to see just what kind of information you can learn!

Another site that I discovered on my own while researching this post is Kids-In-Mind. I think I actually prefer this site (despite the annoying banner ads) because it doesn’t attempt to assign any minimum age or even review the quality of a movie. Instead it simply provides VERY detailed descriptions of film content. Here is an excerpt from their “About” page:

The purpose of kids-in-mind.com is to provide parents and other adults with objective and complete information about a film’s content so that they can decide, based on their own value system, whether they should watch a movie with or without their kids.

It’s like a food labeling system which tells you what a food item contains. That’s it. We make no judgments about what is good or bad or anything else. Indeed, we do not “condemn,” “critique” or “criticize” movies. And we don’t “praise” or “recommend” movies either. We advance no “beliefs” and we do not “preach” anything. We are not affiliated with any political party, any cultural or religious group, or any ideology. The only thing we advocate is responsible, engaged parenting.

They point out that often their descriptions are so detailed as to be a bit ridiculous, but as they say: “…we’d rather err on the side of comprehensiveness. It’s up to parents to decide which details are useful to them and their family, and which ones they consider fatuous.”

I like this philosophy. Non-judgmental, simply a great source for detailed information so that parents can make their own movie viewing decisions based on their personal concerns and values, and knowing the sensitivity-level of their child. Sounds good to me!

Photo courtesy of morguefile.com and photographer Michael Connors.

Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function

By , February 21, 2008 3:31 pm


On NPR’s Morning Edition this morning was a VERY interesting story (“Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills“) about how children’s play has changed in the last century. Instead of engaging in self-directed, imaginative, improvised play, play has become centered around toys and the latest movie or TV show: “Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch” they play “Star Wars with a toy light saber.”

Commercialization is only partly to blame, as child safety has become more of a concern in recent years. Parents are now more reluctant to let their children run loose around the neighborhood. They enroll kids in structured, adult-lead activities.

This change in play-habits has actually changed children’s brains according to researchers. Imaginative play helps kids develop what is known as “executive function,” which is a cognitive skill necessary for self-regulation (controlling emotions and behavior, resisting impulses, and exercising self-control and discipline).

Read this interesting excerpt from the NPR piece:

We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.

“Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.”

According to executive function researcher, Laura Berk: “Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.” In fact, good executive function is a more reliable predictor of success in school than IQ. Poor executive function leads to high dropout rates, drug use, and crime. Of course there must be a middle ground here, but the better a child’s ability to self-regulate, the better they will perform in school, and in life.

So here is yet another reason to turn off the TV, ignore the terrible whines, agonizing howls of boredom and claims of inhumane parental treatment and see what happens. They just might surprise you with the games they come up with on their own. And…they will be improving their executive function skills!

I urge you to listen to this fascinating NPR piece (7 min 50 sec), or at least read the online transcript.

+ Some suggestions for activities that promote self-regulation:

(from researchers Deborah Leong, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Elena Bodrova, senior researcher with Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, and Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University, found on the transcript page of the NPR website):

– Play “Simon Says”

– Encourage “complex imaginative play” (child plans and acts out scenarios, invents own props, etc. Best if play lasts for several hours)

– Activities that require planning (the examples given are: games with directions, patterns for construction, recipes for cooking)

– Read storybooks with your children

– Encourage children to talk to themselves (“fosters concentration, effort, problem-solving, and task success”)

+ A related Unplug Your Kids post: Let Your Kids be Bored

(Photo (taken in Madagascar) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and photographer Harald Kreutzer.)

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