Imaginative play develops ‘Executive Function’

‘Imagine that,’ exclaimed Kathie M. in our daily TLN discussion group, after listening to a recent NPR report on imaginative play. ‘There WAS a benefit for those many, many days I played by myself in my grandmother’s garage stuffed with her friends’ belongings.’

Researchers Adele Diamond and Deborah Leong would approve. Unorganized play is the best kind, they say — it costs nothing “and really only has one main requirement — imagination.” Too often today  children’s play is over-managed and orchestrated, they believe. While leagues and lessons are helpful in developing some skills, Leong says kids are usually being regulated by adults in these settings and have many fewer chances to manage themselves than children once did.

The comments echo a 2006 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics which said free and unstructured play “is healthy and — in fact — essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”

It turns out that Kathie (now a literacy coach) was building a “critical cognitive skill” called executive function while poking through the piles of junk in her grandma’s outbuilding. Its most important element is self-regulation, “the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.” The NPR story goes on to describe a program called Tools of the Mind which some early childhood programs are using to build this executive function in pre-schoolers.

Ariel, an 8th grade English teacher, told the TLN discussion group: “My mind is already racing about how to apply this knowledge in middle school. One thing that’s been tremendously successful at times is dramatic play, which seems to tie in with the research.”

Anthony noted that increased testing in the early grades has increased the emphasis on highly structured teaching as soon as kindergarten. “It seems to me that the more we pile on test preparation and scripted curriculum, the less ability these students have to focus, to exercise self-control, and the less curiosity they seem to exhibit.”

Marsha remembered that, even 20 years ago, “I had to search far and wide when my children were preschool age to find a preschool that wasn’t emphasizing reading readiness skills — and that valued ‘play.’ I can only imagine that the pressures are more intense right now.”

Several TLN’ers recalled a conversation thread from a week or so ago, spinning off a Wall Street Journal article headlined “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?” In that story we learned Finnish teens, who by some measures “are among the smartest in the world,” don’t start school until they’re seven years old. Can we make some connection there? Perhaps they’ve spent more time at imaginative play, developing that critical “executive function” skill?

“Once school starts,” says the WSJ, “the Finns are more self-reliant. While some U.S. parents fuss over accompanying their children to and from school, and arrange every play date and outing, young Finns do much more on their own.” During a visit to a primary school, the WSJ reporter found there was no Internet filter in the school library. Imagine that.

The story ends with this revealing quote from a Finnish school principal: “We just have to accept the fact that they’re kids, and they’re learning how to live.”

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