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Toddlers to tweens: relearning how to play

Children's play is threatened, say experts who advise that kids – from toddlers to tweens – should be relearning how to play. Roughhousing and fantasy feed development.

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"People started saying there must be something else," Dr. Leong says. "And we believed what was missing was self-regulation and executive function."

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She became interested in a body of research from Russia that showed children who played more had better self-regulation. This made sense to her, she says. For example, studies have shown that children can stand still far longer if they are playing soldier; games such as Simon says depend on concentration and rule-following.

"Play is when kids regulate their behavior voluntarily," Leong says. Eventually, she and Dr. Bodrova developed the curriculum used in the Children's Place today, where students spend the day in different sorts of play. They act out long-form make-believe scenes, they build their own props, and they participate in buddy reading, where one child has a picture of a pair of lips and the other has a picture of ears. The child with the lips reads; the other listens. Together, these various play exercises increase self-control, educators say.

This was on clear display recently at the Children's Place. Nearly half the children there have been labeled as special needs students with everything from autism to physical limitations. The others are mainstream preschoolers – an "easier" group, perhaps, but still not one typically renowned for its self-control.

But in a brightly colored classroom, a group of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds are notably calm; polite and quiet, sitting in pairs, taking turns "reading" a picture book.

"Here are scissors, a brush...," a boy named Aiden points out to his partner, Kyle, who is leaning in attentively.

"Oh, don't forget the paint," Kyle says, although he's mostly quiet, as it's his turn to listen.

Aiden nods and smiles: "Yes, the paint."

When Aiden is finished, the boys switch roles. Around them, another dozen toddlers do the same – all without teacher direction. The Tools classrooms have the reputation of being far better-behaved than mainstream classes.

"We have been blown away," says Ms. Billings-Fouhy, the director, comparing how students are doing now versus before the Tools curriculum. "We can't believe the difference."

Educators and scientists have published overwhelmingly positive analyses since the early 2000s of the sort of curriculum Tools of the Mind employs. But recently the popularity of the play-based curriculum has skyrocketed, with more preschools adopting the Tools method and parenting chat rooms buzzing about the curriculum. Two years ago, for instance, Billings-Fouhy had to convince people about changing the Children's Place program. Now out-of-district parents call to get their children in.

"I think we're at this place where everyone is coming to the conclusion that play is important," Leong says. "Not just because of self-regulation, but because people are worried about the development of the whole child – their social and emotional development as well."

Today's kids don't know how to play

But not all play is created equal, experts warn.

The Tools of the Mind curriculum, for instance, uses what Leong calls "intentional mature play" – play that is facilitated and guided by trained educators. If children in the class were told to simply go and play, she says, the result probably would be a combination of confusion, mayhem, and paralysis.

"People say, 'Let's bring back play,' " Leong says. "But they don't realize play won't just appear spontaneously, especially not in preschool.... The culture of childhood itself has changed."

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