Tools of the Mind: Teaching Children Self-Regulation through Play

Today’s guest blog post is by Dr. Deborah Leong, Executive Director of Tools of the Mind, and coauthor with Dr. Elena Bodrova of “Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education”, and Barbara Wilder-Smith, Director of Content Development at Tools of the Mind. Tools of the Mind and First Book have partnered to make a new resource, Interactive Make-Believe Play Experiences, available to the First Book community of educators.

Imagine a small boy, we’ll call him ‘Henry,’ melts down when he arrives at morning meeting.

There’s another child sitting where he wants to sit. He wails and stamps his foot, his face turning a shade of crimson, as tears roll down his cheeks. Later in the day, the class gathers again on the rug, and the teacher assigns each child a partner. He doesn’t get the partner he wants. He turns his back to the group, his arms tightly folded across his chest. He is unable to participate.

How do you understand Henry’s challenges? Adults can often misunderstand this behavior, and see it as defiance, or immaturity. We understand it quite differently: it is related to the development of self-regulation.

More and more children in early childhood are entering the classroom without the self-regulation they need to engage in positive social interactions and learning activities. Without self-regulation, young children can be reactive, unable to inhibit their actions. They are not yet in control of their emotions, behavior, or attention. Research on school expulsion rates in early childhood is just one indicator of the enormity of the problem. Early childhood teachers want to know what to do.

Tools of the Mind has dedicated the last 25 years to helping early childhood teachers support young children’s self-regulation development to tackle these challenges. Although there are many components to our program, there is one that is primary in its role in supporting self-regulation development: make-believe play.

Why Make-Believe Play?

“In play, a child always behaves beyond his age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a ‘head taller’ than  himself.”
– Lev Vygotsky, Russian psychologist (1896-1934)

In Vygotskian theory, make-believe play is the activity with the most developmental potential in early childhood. There are many skills developed in the kind of make-believe play Vygotsky was talking about, but the most significant is self-regulation.

Let’s look at Henry in make-believe play, on the very same day:

Henry is a ‘doctor,’ bent over a peer playing the role of ‘patient’ stretched out on a nap mat, a stethoscope around his neck.

He asks her what’s wrong. “I shouldn’t have eaten my Grampa’s Cheetos!” she tells him. He looks concerned, as he straightens and smooths a blanket over her, leaning in to pretend to listen to her heart.

His eyes grow wide. “You’re crunching. But you’re not feeling so good, so you’ve got to stay in bed. Stay in.” He goes over to a peer playing the role of ‘nurse’, who is currently checking on another ‘patient’. He works to get her full attention, inspiring her to leave the counter to attend to the ‘patient’ with him. He tells her, “I heard her breathing and there was clonking in there. Clonking bad in there!”

Because his teachers have helped him learn about what the ‘roles’ in a scenario like this do and say, Henry has the background knowledge he needs to engage in make-believe play. He practices empathy and waiting patiently. He limits his actions to those that go with his role,and is responsive to what his peers say and do. He knows how to use props (a stethoscope) and uses ‘role speech,’ the tone and language associated with different ‘roles’ (his serious tone as he instructs his patient what to do and reports to the nurse, albeit ‘clonking bad in there’ is not what any of us hope to hear after a doctor listens to our hearts!)  In play, his behavior is a ‘head taller,’ or more mature than the behavior we saw earlier in the classroom. The more children exercise this self-regulation ‘muscle’ in play, the stronger it becomes. This is exactly what his teacher has been working hard to support, as she works with children to co-construct imaginative play themes.

Make-believe play is intrinsically motivating for young children. It’s so motivating that they voluntarily practice regulating their own behavior in the context of make-believe play, and accept regulation from each other. Through this kind of make-believe play with peers, children develop self-regulation, a set of foundational skills that allow them to be successful managing emotions, engaging socially with peers, and learning.

In our work with teachers facilitating this kind of play, we try to ‘level the playing field’ so that all children in the classroom can and will engage in make-believe play. To do this, we bring the children together in an activity to build play theme background knowledge, like Henry’s teacher did.  In this activity, children practice the ‘roles,’ ‘role speech,’ and ‘actions’ in different play themes. Then, teachers dedicate time for children to make props. In this way, children have the knowledge, practice and materials they need to launch intentional make-believe play during center time, and sustain it.

We’re excited to partner with First Book to make the Let’s Pretend Interactive Make-Believe Play Experiences available on the First Book Marketplace. We’ve put together a set of 10 different play theme experiences, so educators can support self-regulation development through make-believe play. Together, we can help children build the underlying skills they need to be successful in school, and life.

If you work with children in need you can find books and resources – including Tools of the Mind’s “Interactive Make-Believe Play Experiences” on the First Book Marketplace.