Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Improvised Play

I'm not a big fan of television for kids and I'm especially not a fan of advertising aimed at children. Most of my friends know that I was absolutely against all the branded clothing and toys when Amelia was born, preferring to let her imagination take over and leave some of the materialism behind as much as possible. I've had some feedback occasionally that our stance was extreme, but I have to share this story as it explains quite well some of the reasons we chose to do what we did. I also believe it has as much to do with television itself as the type of toys kids play with - Rafe has a great theory on that I'll share sometime. I've noticed that with the toys we do have that are more structured, she plays with them much less than she plays with the things she creates out of bits and pieces around the house - an empty plastic tub in our kitchen alone has been a baby bed, a wagon, a tent, a boat, a car...

Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

(the link to the full article; an excerpt below)

Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here's the issue: 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 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. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning 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 dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than 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."

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