Childrens play develops ‘executive function’

A set of cognitive and emotional abilities that predict future performance

The importance of a child’s imagination: Do you remember a time when you were a child playing some made up game? A branch became a horse, a twig a gun; and in the blazing heat of the desert sands (well …local hills) you rode to capture the bad wizard? No? But maybe you have your own story?

I started to think about the importance of creative play when I was out running along the front in Brighton and noticed how some driftwood had made the beach the perfect playground and was full of deliriously happy kids. Their imaginations were running riot, all totally engrossed as they played out being builders on a new planet, pirates and monsters.

Children enjoy and need non-structured play to develop emotional regulation. I could not help think that although it was gorgeous to see the kids having such a wonderful time something was odd. Then it dawned on me – no adults organizing them! The parents sat around in groups chatting and enjoying each other’s company.

The changing nature of children’s play. So, after a coffee and some research on the internet, a picture started to form about the changing nature of children’s play. Studies show there has been an increase in adult led, toy centered, rule bound play that has had a detrimental effect on the development of children’s emotional and cognitive development.

In a recent book by play historian Chudacoff he says “It’s interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys. Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.”

With the ever increasing growth in toys and pre-scripted play, children now wave a plastic gun instead of a piece of wood. Combine this with the ever more sanitized and protected environments that we create for children to keep them safe; and we have limited their make believe world that equips them for adulthood.

It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

The diminishing ability to self regulate: Psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says ‘We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. “Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.’

In other studies, children with poor executive function had trouble waiting, co-operating and would be more inclined to say something that would offend. Teenagers would need more help with organizing themselves, deciding the importance of tasks and sticking with a project for a long period. These children were more likely to be involved in crime and drop out of school.

However; children who had good executive function were more easily able to exercise self-confidence, solve problems and monitor their responses. The result of this is that they were better able to learn, concentrate and get on with others.

As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, “Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.” And is a more reliable guide to success than IQ. The same was discovered in the famous 1960’s ‘marshmallow test’ where children of four years old were given a marshmallow and asked to wait twenty minutes before eating it; if they did they would get an extra one. The researchers followed them into adolescence and found that those children who were able to defer gratification were better adjusted and more dependable. So how is this achieved? In make-believe play children do a great deal of ‘private talk.’ Berk say’s that this is where we talk our way through what we plan to do. This helps us when we are older to organize our lives, solve problems, exercise restraint and a whole host of other complex cognitive skills.

I recall playing with a friend’s three year old recently and she poured too much water into the pot of glue we were making for paper mache, I mentioned that it would not hold and waited to see what she would do. She stirred for some time, talked endlessly about the goo, pushed her fingers and generally made a complete mess. Then she went outside got some dusty soil from the edge of the driveway and added it to the pot to make a thicker paste. Genius!!!!!

Learn through experience not compliance to external information. When we strip away our rules of the game children are left to make their own. No longer slaves to information from adults’ minds, children can try out their own theories and problem solving. Play then becomes a process of learning through experience not a compilation of external information and tools.

If after reading this article you are tempted to Google ‘creative play’ you will be disappointed to learn that the first two website pages I opened talk about the equipment and toys you will need for creative play!!!!!

Of course the real answer is children need nothing much more than their imaginations and a safe space to play. And that makes me smile as I realize the foundation of my business skills may in part have begun with my stuffed pull along dog Blackie who by night – when no one was looking, became the fastest horse in the West, up to all sorts of adventure and the envy of every cowgirl!!

Jill Wootton (47 Posts)