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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.

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