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.)

10 Responses to “Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function”

  1. Jenny says:

    I heard that story this morning while I was getting ready to get CJ up and going. I had to stop what I was doing because it was so interesting- and sad. The study that compared children to today to those 60 years ago was particularly troubling. I’m so glad you posted about this along with the suggestions to improve self-regulation. I’ve got the storybooks part down, and CJ talks up a storm to herself, but we could use some work in the other areas.

  2. Thank you for this post. I am always thinking about my son’s lack of instant freedom, living in the city and with no yard of our own. Even though I take him out as much as possible, we always have to schedule playdates and activities. It is a completely different environment than what I had growing up when I could “escape” down the street on my bike with my friends. On the other hand, he has instant friends whose front doors are in the same hallway as his own. I try to take advantage of that, too.

  3. Great post. I will definitely check out the full transcript. I am very big on allowing the kids to have time to play, explore and experiment, especially outside. This just reminds me of how important it really is.

  4. Diane says:

    Thanks for this story and the link- missed it! Yes, there is a big change from the freedom of movement of my childhood and that of my kid’s today. We have a large yard which is safe and one of the reasons we fell in love with this property was the endless possibilities of play! Our girls- 3 and 7- do not like to play outside alone, but I can garden and keep them company. Woods, tree house, swing set, little creek- the world is yours! :)

    My 7 year old is BIG into dressing up- yes, often as characters from movies or books. We have a ton of dress up stuff- everything from a Cpt. Jack costume to play silks. It’s always amazing to see the costumes she comes up with!

    Off to read the transcript! Thanks!

  5. Kate in NJ says:

    Great post, as always. P has the talking to herself bit down pat,lol.
    Imaginative play rules our roost!!Dressing up,putting on plays and shows..acting out stories we have read…lots of reading.
    We do still watch t.v., but many days go by without it as well.
    It’s funny, many of our friends see her as “less mature” than their children, because she uses her imagination and talks to herself and her imaginary friends while their children sit and watch “High School Musical” over and over. ;-)P can play a soccer tournament in our backyard with just herself..and a ball.LOL

  6. calicobebop says:

    This is a great article! My little one is an only child so she talks to herself all the time. I’m glad that’s actually somewhat normal. :) I’ll have to play simon says with her – I think she’d get a kick out of it!

  7. […] Unplug Your Kids has a very interesting post about an NPR article and interview. In this NPR article, Alix Spiegel describes how creative play is essential for the development of self-regulation and “executive function”. […]

  8. […] with me even more than usual. In case you missed it, I wrote about both these reports recently (Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function and “Creative Play Makes for Kids in […]

  9. […] fit in so well with my recent posts about the newly discovered benefits of simple, creative play (Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function and Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control), as well as the Shiny Side […]

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