“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.

9 Responses to ““Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control””

  1. MamaShift says:

    Other possible reasons: play and art (crafts) are adult-directed (today we will do this), even in the home; children spend little time outdoors, and always within a restricted radius (there was a BBC report on this); children are not allowed to be bored; children have few responsibilities (not chores, necessarily); shopping is considered recreation (a way to entertain, get out of the house)…

  2. Gwyn says:

    This series of posts is very interesting. My kids are barely plugged in at all and their toys are all open ended etc but I am still unsure whether they do enough creative and imaginative play. Is there a benchmark or guideline that you know of about how many hours a day should be this complex imaginative play the experts are talking about? It would be interesting to tally it up and see how we are going!

  3. virginia malton says:

    I am a child therapist and see numerous useful concepts and activities. How does one go about getting the complete program.

  4. Jenny says:

    I didn’t see your post until this morning, but I managed to catch most of the story on NPR anyway- what luck! I found the idea of children having to write down everything that they were going to do (play with play dough, even) a tad disturbing. It seems too far on the other end of the spectrum, to me anyway. I wonder if the kids in that program went home and watched TV and played with electronic toys like most kids seem to? It would be interesting to see how the kids in the program self regulate vs. an “unplugged” child.

  5. Mom Unplugged says:

    Thank you all for your comments!

    Hi MamaShift:

    Great comment and I have to say I agree with you. In fact the NPR piece also suggests that adult-organized activities and less outdoor time are factors in the change of play habits (especially the last NPR story that I wrote about here:
    Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function.)

    You make a great point that more and more adults are organizing projects and activities for children in the home too (the Unplugged Project for example!!) I have always been a believer in not being my kids’ “entertainment director” and allowing them to solve their own boredom issues. I am fortunate however to have a big, safe backyard and more than one child (instant playmates at the ready).

    Oooo…I feel a post coming on!

    Hi Gwyn:

    I am glad you are enjoying these posts. It is an interesting subject isn’t it? Good question! I can’t really answer it except to quote the last NPR piece: Complex imaginative play is beneficial when children engage in it for “a fair amount of time, a half-hour at a minimum, though longer is better. Sustained play that lasts for hours is best.”

    My feeling is that it is not so much about saying to a child: “now it is time for one hour of sustained, complex, imaginative play” and setting a timer. I think it is more about making sure that children have a few free independent hours in their day, either with friends or alone, to just run around and do “kid-stuff.”

    Oooo…I feel ANOTHER post coming on!

    Hi Virginia (and anyone else who is here looking for more info about this program):

    Thanks for your comment. The best way to get the actual details about the program is to visit the Tools of the Mind website. They have a contact page:


    Hi Jenny:

    Yes, it is a bit disturbing, or at least odd-sounding. If the program works as they say, then that is great. However what bothers me, is that there is a need for such a program to begin with. If we could just treat the causes of lacking executive function skills and eliminate the problem, that would be wonderful. I guess that is kind of what this blog is about really.

  6. Sarah says:

    I found this disturbing as well. When my kids were younger, I rarely organized their play. I found that if I was busy alongside them either working about the house or working outside, they seemed to feel secure enough to just let their imaginations take them somewhere else. I recently read a post somewhere else –maybe at “not quite crunchy” about getting kids outside more. Yet the suggestions for getting them outside was to script their time outdoors. That just increases their dependence on others. I sense a blog post coming….

  7. […] 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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  9. Liz Piciachia says:


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