Thursday, April 17, 2008

Creative Play - You're Doing It Wrong!

I heard this story on NPR, Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control, about the Tools of the Mind program which promotes creative play as a means to promote self-regulation in children. Now I totally agree that today's kids have too many structured activities and that can lead to issues with self-control. According to a companion NPR piece, Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills:
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.
But the techniques outlined in the Tools of the Mind program left me thinking that they totally missed the boat. Preschoolers are asked to make a written plan before they play, making them think in advance about what they are going to do and then follow the plan. They are talking about 4-year-olds! I'm sorry but filling out paperwork before playing is not creative play, it is inundating poor innocent children with the drudgery of the adult world. They are in preschool for crying out loud, not trying to get an MBA. They have to fill out paperwork whether they want to play with play-doh or to play outside during recess. To me, this is not creative in the least. I can see kids preferring to write "slide" over "sandbox" because it has less letters. It's one thing to promote self-awareness and self-regulation, but to the point of stifling any sense of spontaneity and fun? Besides, even in the software world of agile development, it is all about being able to change your design and implementation quickly and not having to be tied down to fully detailed specification at the beginning of a project. Let's just say that I would never survive this preschool.

Perhaps I had such a strong reaction to this story because as a child, I analyzed everything to death, so that any new experience would end up feeling mundane after I mulled it over in my mind. It took years to for me to chill out and simply experience and enjoy new things without having to know every last detail and over-analyze them. The strangest thing about this NPR story was that I couldn't agree more with the concepts of creative and free play but couldn't disagree more as how they implemented it. (Am I over-analyzing this or what?!)

Another alarming part of the story was a quote from Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience, who described her first visit to the school, "I was totally blown away. The kids were sitting together working quietly. It was like a second-grade classroom instead of a preschool classroom. I couldn't believe it." OMG, this just tells me that these are Stepford children. The kid in them have been beaten out and replaced by robots.

According to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, "[in the old days, children] improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors… 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." Now this is real creative or free play. Not some kind of forced business plan play. I watched my children play tonight and found this to be entirely true. With no toys, video games or TV, Adam decided to take my sweater and pants and put them on. First it was just a gag where his pants would drop while he walked around which elicited many giggles from Dova. Then it evolved into Adam actually pretending to be me, and I became his husband Doug. He took on my mannerisms as well, lying on my side of the bed and taking out the camera to take photos (of course he went for my real camera and I had to intervene and tell him to use his own). Dova took on the persona of Adam and put on his bathrobe and talked about how she liked to play hockey. Every aspect of this make-believe was extremely accurate, especially the quotes such as, "I'm not taking you shopping because you'll be difficult." It took quite a bit of self-regulation to assume these different roles for over an hour.

The preschool that Adam previously attended and that Dova now attends does believe in child-directed learning and real free play. Sure they have some structured and group times, but there are plenty of times where children are allowed to choose how they will play. For this summer, I found another private school that has a pool, so I signed them up for their summer camp program. When we visited this school last month, it was completely pristine and beautiful and the children appeared to be extremely well-behaved. Boots were lined up neatly outside each classroom on a tray and mittens were individually pinned up on a drying rack. Did the children actually line up these boots and pin their mittens or do the teachers spend the entire time tidying up after them? We left with the feeling that this school was too good to be true and perhaps they were all Stepford children. Hopefully, our kids won't have to write any business plans during camp. Either way, it has a pool, so that decides that.

So my take home message from these NPR stories is to promote more free play. I know that Adam plays too many video games and has too many sports (hockey and soccer have games and practices four days a week), and Dova watches too much TV. But we do send them outside to play and force them to play with each other without TV and video games. Sure, they get crazy and out of control, but that will eventually promote more self-regulation right?


Anonymous said...

Executive Function? Don't Gots It.

Think they gave me a vaccination for that when I was young.

Amie Adams said...

Interesting since executive function is what suffers most when a child has ADD or ADHD.

I'm with you though. A written plan?? Puh-lease.

Mo and The Purries said...

So, tinker toys beats X-box, right?

Mean Mommy said...

There is one piece that I think that you missed. These are children from low SES households whose parents have not taught them creative playy. I worked on a long-term study of such a deficit. You'd think that creative play doesn't have to be taught, but it does. So, when you, someone lucky enough to spend a good deal of quality time with your children suggests that they play make believe and perhaps even mention something like, pirate ships or store, you are in effect creating the same regimen as the children asked to write down a plan, only over time you've been teaching this to your children.

These kids haven't had anyone to do that for them. If you said, go play "pirates" they might not even know where to start. Free-play still includes some constructs. If you said play "pirates" your kids might know to pretend that there's a ship, that there's a captain, that there might be a parrot, etc.
This program is simply teaching kids to think about what might be included in their free play.

In the study on which I worked, the children who were not taught how to creatively play still engaged in parallel play at age 5, highly inappropriate, but they didn't know where to start.
Not all children are as lucky as ours. Some parents don't have the time or the resources to agonize over how to raise their children, they just do the best that they can, and then their children need structured help.

Kim Moldofsky said...

Interesting points Sam's mom!

Angela, I agree with your take onthe article. I heard it on my drive to work and was talking back to my radio.

Free play and a written script for "free" play are not the same thing. I really enjoyed the first piece of the series, though. I felt like I wanted all the teachers at my boys school to hear it. (The teachers, in turn, would want all the parents to hear it.)