In our Pre-kindergarten classrooms we participate in center time each day. When walking past our door, this will indeed look like we are "playing". In some eyes this is good, but to others, it may look like we are wasting our day away. In Pre-K we do focus on academics, but we also stress the importance of building social/ emotional skills, problem solving skills and developing the imagination. We do this by surrounding the students with materials and tools and letting them explore. We have many centers that provide the opportunity to use the creative imagination; the kitchen center with dolls and dishes, the building center will cardboard blocks and toy cars, and the Writing Center with paper, markers, paint, feathers, stickers, etc. Because of having so many active centers, our classroom gets quite noisy. But we see this differently as others. Our philosophy is that the louder our classroom is, the more learning that is taking place. Below is a summary of an article that I found quite breath taking. Let’s work together to make sure that we are developing our children’s capacity for self-regulation and allowing them to explore the world through their creative imaginations.
Old-Fasioned Play Builds Serious Skills
By: Alix Spiegel
Npr- February 22, 2008
“It’s interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys,” states Chudacoff. “Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.” Chudacoff talks about children playing in the 19th century. They would roam in packs large and small, more or less unsupervised and engage in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes. Basically, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all.
“They improvised play, whether it was indoors…or whether it was on a street corner or somebody’s back yard. They improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules.”
But during the second half of the century, play changed radically. Instead of playing make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Instead of playing pirate with a tress branch, they played Star Wars with a toy light saber. This is a trend which will begin to shrink the size of children’s imaginative space.
Clearly, the way children spend their time has changed. A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids’ cognitive and emotional development. 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.
We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminshed. 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 3 minutes and the 7 year olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.
“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."
Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high drop-out rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school that a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."
One reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what’s called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. “In fact, if we compare preschooler’s activities and the amount of private speech that occurs across them, we find that this self-regulating language is highest during make believe play. And this type of self-regulating language has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions.” Berk says.
And it's not just children who use private speech to control themselves. If we look at adult use of private speech, Berk says, "we're often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions."
Unfortunately the more structured the play, the more children’s private speech declines. Because children’s play is so focused on lessons and leagues, and because kids’ toys increasingly inhibit imaginative play, kids aren’t getting a chance to practice policing themselves. When they have that opportunity, says Berk, the results are clear: Self-regulation improves.
"One index that researchers, including myself, have used...is the extent to which a child, for example, cleans up independently after a free-choice period in preschool, " Berk says. "We find that children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that responsibility with...greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting."
It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage-to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them- our culture has compromised one of the activities that helped children the most. All wasted time is not such a waste after all.