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:
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:
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.
Photo courtesy of morguefile.com and photographer tangle_eye.