RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
Today in Your Health, teaching young children self-control. Last week we reported that kids who spend their play time in highly structured, closely supervised activities end up with less control over their own behavior. Kids who do a lot of imaginative, independent play make up their own rules and learn to play by them.
Today, NPR's Alix Spiegel reports on one preschool program in New Jersey. It's called Tools of the Mind, and it's designed to teach kids behavioral skills they don't learn from lessons, leagues, or time in front of computers and televisions.
ALIX SPIEGEL: It's playtime at the Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and in one corner of a busy classroom four-year-olds Zee Logan and Emmy Hernandez are pretending to operate a bookstore. Zee carries an armload of picture books to the small wooden table where Emmy sits with a plastic register and authoritative vision of appropriate bookstore etiquette.
Ms. EMMY HERNANDEZ (Preschooler): You have to put them here, and we have to put them in the bag. We have to re-put them in the bag.
SPIEGEL: Once the books are secure in their set, Emmy does some quick calculations, then announces the damage.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: Five dollars.
SPIEGEL: For a second, Zee eyes Emmy skeptically, then seems to make peace with this extravagant demand. After all, the books are for a good cause.
Ms. ZEE LOGAN (Preschooler): These books are my kids.
SPIEGEL: Now, unlike most kids, Zee Logan and Emmy Hernandez didn't just spontaneously decide to play bookstore. Before Zee or Emmy even thought about picking up a toy, they sat down with a pen and a teacher and filled out an elaborate play plan form, something student Felicity Roberts is doing with teacher Sarah Turner.
Ms. SARAH TURNER (Teacher): Whatcha got? I - am - going - to...
SPIEGEL: Felicity wants to make gingerbread with Play-Doh, so together teacher and student spell out the words. Next, Felicity draws a picture of her plan. Then finally Turner asks Felicity to review the plan out loud to herself.
Ms. TURNER: So let's say our message.
Ms. FELICITY ROBERTS (Preschooler): I am going to make a gingerbread.
Ms. TURNER: Good, very good.
SPIEGEL: Now, the reason the Tools of the Mind program asks four-year-olds like Felicity to fill out paperwork before they pick up a tube of Play-Doh lies in the fact that today's play is very different from the play of past eras.
Tools of the Mind co-creator Deborah Leong says play today lacks unstructured imaginative time.
Ms. DEBORAH LEONG (Co-Creator, Tools of the Mind): I'm sure most adults will remember in summertime, you spent the whole day with a group of kids and having all sorts of pretend scenarios. I'm going to be the mommy and you're going to be the baby and you're going to be sick and you're going to cry.
SPIEGEL: While these rambling dramas might've looked a lot like time spent doing nothing much at all, Leong and other psychologists say it actually helped children develop control over their emotions and behavior.
Psychologist Laura Berk explains.
Ms. LAURA BERK (Psychologist): We often call it free play, but it's the least free of children's play context in that children are always during make-believe acting against immediate impulses, because they have to subject themselves to the rules of the make-believe scene. And those rules almost inevitably are the social rules of the child's cultural world. So that a child pretending to go to sleep follows the rules of bedtime behavior, another child imagining herself to be a parent conforms to the rules of parental behavior, and the child playing teacher asserts the rules of the school and classroom behaviors.
SPIEGEL: And Leong and others say most of the way children spend their time now - video games, television, lessons - don't involve children in creating scenarios and playing by their own rules.
Ms. LEONG: And the result of that is that children aren't developing the self-regulation skills that they used to.
SPIEGEL: And this is no small matter, says Leong, because being able to regulate one's emotions is a critical life skill. In fact, in school these skills are a better predictor of success than a child's IQ, which is why in a Tools of the Mind curriculum and in some other programs that have been designed almost every minute of the day is spent practicing how to plan, delay impulses, create scenarios, implement rules, all aspects of something psychologists call executive function.
Children walk in the door and are asked the question of the week: a practice intended to work on deliberate memory. This question is followed by five or so minutes of news sharing, and then it's on to more executive function practice.
Ms. MARY GARRISON (Teacher): We will be doing the Freeze.
(Soundbite of music)
SPIEGEL: Mary Garrison bobs her head as the children in her class dance more or less to the beat. To the untrained eye, this looks a lot like the game of Freeze that you might see in any school, where kids hold a random pose when the music stops. But like everything else in a Tools school, the activity has been modified. As the music plays, Garrison holds a picture of a stick figure above her head. The children are supposed to observe the position of that figure without doing it, and then when the music ceases assume that position and that position only.
(Soundbite of music)
SPIEGEL: Which they do. After class, school supervisor Celeste Merriweather says the important part of the Freeze game is the practice of controlling impulses by observing the stick figure without immediately doing as the stick figure does.
Ms. CELESTE MERRIWEATHER (Supervisor, Tools of the Mind): And what happens is as they grow into the other years, when they get angry, instead of me continuing with the punch or with the yelling I'm able to stop myself. And then I can do something else, rather than do the act. And that's why the Freeze dance, while fun, that's what it's doing.
SPIEGEL: Merriweather ticks off a long list of other activities that teach such skills. After Freeze, there's Buddy Reading - another impulse-control practice. Really, not even recess is innocent fun.
Ms. MERRIWEATHER: It's not just run out in the yard. No. We want them to make a plan. What do you want to do, and how do you want to do it?
SPIEGEL: As Merriweather talks, a row of four-year-old students silently follow their teacher down the hall. Without speaking, the children touch their shoulders, their hips, their knees, mimicking their teacher's actions.
Ms. MERRIWEATHER: Now, what you'll see right here, if you look, see how she's doing a different activity? This is another self-regulation.
SPIEGEL: This exercise, Merriweather explains, teaches children how to hold several things in mind at the same time, an element of executive function called working memory. And according to executive function researcher Adele Diamond, all these little exercises genuinely do improve the ability of children to control themselves. Diamond recalls the first time she ever set foot in a Tools of the Mind classroom.
Ms. ADELE DIAMOND (Researcher): And I was totally blown away. The kids were sitting together and working quietly. And it was like, you know, a second-grade classroom instead of a preschool classroom. I couldn't believe it.
SPIEGEL: Diamond has no financial or professional connection to the Tools of the Mind program. She's just a researcher who decided to study the program. She followed 147 preschoolers. Half the kids got Tools training. Half followed the regular school curriculum. After two years the children all took a series of tests that measured executive function. Tools kids did better.
Ms. DIAMOND: Children who were in the district curriculum performed roughly at chance. And the children in Tools were about 85 percent correct. So those are big differences.
SPIEGEL: Adele Diamond says there are potential benefits to this training that go beyond improved executive function scores. She and several other researchers argue that children's reduced self-regulation skills may be showing up in the number of kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Ms. DIAMOND: 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. And so they come to you presenting very disregulated, but not because they can't regulate themselves, but because they never learned how.
SPIEGEL: A modern problem which now might have a modern solution.
Unidentified Woman: Here, Fran. Here's the counting book.
SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: Last week, we asked for your questions on kids and play. Our experts have responded and you can find their advice on the best type of play for a range of ages at npr.org/yourhealth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Play has radically changed — and not for the better, some researchers say. So, at one school in New Jersey, preschoolers are asked to fill out paperwork before they pick up their Play-Doh. The idea isn't to take the fun out of play, but to get kids to think in advance about what they're doing and how they'll do it.
It's playtime at the Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center in Bridgeton, N.J., and in one corner of a busy classroom, 4-year-olds Zee Logan and Emmy Hernandez want to play bookstore.
In a normal preschool, playing bookstore would be a pretty casual affair. They would just pick up some books, set the shiny toy cash register on the table by the blackboard, and get down to business.
But this isn't a normal school. It's based on the Tools of the Mind program. In other words, it's a school where almost every moment of the day is devoted in some way to teaching the kids — mostly low-income children who live in the poor surrounding community — how to regulate their behavior and emotions.
So before Emmy and Zee even think about picking up a toy, they sit down with their teacher at a small classroom table and fill out some paperwork.
That's right. Paperwork.
On a small blank form, they spell out their intentions. "I want to play bookstore," each girl writes with assistance from her teacher.
Then she draws a picture of herself playing bookstore.
Then, together with her teacher, she reads back her intention so that everyone is clear about what is going to happen.
Finally, each girl grabs an armful of props and makes her way to the corner, where (as in most preschool classrooms) strong disagreements about the appropriate way to play bookstore ensue.
Transformation in Play
Now, the reason that the Tools of the Mind curriculum asks kids like Zee and Emmy to fill out paperwork before they pick up the Play-Doh lies in the fact that today's play is very different from the play of past eras.
For most of human history, children played by roaming near or far in packs large and small. Younger children were supervised by older children and engaged in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and heroes.
But, while all that play might have looked a lot like time spent doing nothing much at all, it actually helped build a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of elements, such as working memory and cognitive flexibility. But perhaps the most important is self-regulation — the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. Executive function — and its self-regulation element — is important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.
Unfortunately, play has changed dramatically during the past half-century, and according to many psychological researchers, the play that kids engage in today does not help them build executive function skills. Kids spend more time in front of televisions and video games. When they aren't in front of a screen, they often spend their time in leagues and lessons — activities parents invest in because they believe that they will help their children to excel and achieve.
And while it's true that leagues and lessons are helpful to children in many ways, researcher Deborah Leong says they have one unfortunate drawback. Leong is professor emerita of psychology and director of the Tools of the Mind Project at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She says when kids are in leagues and lessons, they are usually being regulated by adults. That means they are not able to practice regulating themselves.
"As a result," Leong says, "kids aren't developing the self-regulation skills that they used to."
That is why, in a Tools of the Mind program like the one at Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center, almost every minute of the day is spent building executive functions.
The Freeze Connection
Children walk in the door and are asked the question of the week: a practice intended to work on deliberate memory. This work is followed by a highly modified version of a musical game that might otherwise be familiar to parents of preschool children: Freeze.
In a normal game of Freeze, music plays and children dance and jiggle until the music abruptly cuts off and the children freeze in place. But in the Tools version, as the music plays, the teacher holds a picture of a stick figure in a certain pose above her head. The children are supposed to observe the position of the figure without doing it, and when the music ceases, they assume that position and that position only.
Celeste Merriweather, an early childhood supervisor at the school, explains that the important part of the Freeze game is the practice of controlling impulses by observing the stick figure without immediately doing as the stick figure does. This helps then when they're older, she says. Later in life, if they get angry, instead of punching or yelling, they're able to stop themselves.
The Freeze dance, while fun, also builds self-regulation, she says.
Merriweather ticks off a long list of other activities that teach such skills. After Freeze, there is Buddy Reading — another impulse-control practice.
As she explains it, not even recess is innocent fun: "It's not just 'run out in the yard.' No. We want them to make a plan: What do you want to do, and how do you want to do it?"
According to executive function researcher Adele Diamond, all of these little exercises genuinely do improve the ability of children to control themselves. Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, recalls the very first time she ever set foot in a Tools of the Mind classroom.
"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," Diamond says.
Diamond has no financial or professional connection to the Tools of the Mind program. She's just a researcher who decided to test the program. She followed 147 preschoolers. Half the kids were given Tools training; half followed the regular school curriculum. After two years, the children all took a series of tests that measure executive function. The Tools kids did better.
"Children who were in the [school] district curriculum performed roughly at chance. And the kids in the Tools program were about 85 percent correct," Diamond says. "So those are big differences."
Diamond says there are potential benefits to this training that go beyond improved executive-function scores. She and several other researchers argue that children's reduced self-regulation skills may be showing up in the numbers of kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
"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," she says.