Children + play = Self-awareness, self-control and life success

A wonderfully informative psychological study is “the marshmallow test,” in which hundreds of 4-year-olds in the 1960s were offered one marshmallow (or other self-selected treat) immediately or two treats if they could wait till the tester returned to the room. Over the following decades, the 30% of children who managed to wait the full 15 minutes did much better — on average — in school and in life:

[C]hildren who [ate the marshmallow] quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Another study “found that the ability to delay gratification — eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week — was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q.”

The ability to resist temptation and instead sacrifice now for a better tomorrow appears to play a surprisingly large role in life success. Why might this be?

“If you can deal with hot emotions [like wanting the instant gratification of eating the marshmallow], then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

Over a lifetime, many small sacrifices add up to major gains.

This begs the question of whether self-control can be taught or is simply innate and controlled by our genes. The marshmallow test’s creator, Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel, believes patience can be taught and learned:

When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks — such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame — he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

But training someone to act with greater self-control on a specific, immediate task is far easier than teaching them to act with greater self-control in their daily lives for years to come. So,

it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.

An interesting NYT article titled “Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” reports on a new effort — “Tools of the Mind” — to focus preschool around teaching self-control. Here’s the basic theory — based on early 20th Century research by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky — which argues kids learn self-control most effectively by role-playing with other kids:

A new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development…: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.

The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children….

There is growing evidence that… executive-function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I.Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period. In laboratory studies, research psychologists have found that with executive function, practice helps; when children or adults repeatedly perform basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation, they get better at it…

For Vygotsky, the real purpose of early-childhood education was not to learn content, like the letters of the alphabet or the names of shapes and colors and animals. The point was to learn how to think. When children enter preschool, Vygotsky wrote, they are “slaves to their environment,” unable to control their reactions or direct their interests, responding to whatever shiny objects are put in front of them. Accordingly, the most important goal of prekindergarten is to teach children how to master their thoughts. And the best way for children to do that, Vygotsky believed, especially at this early age, is [through] play…

Vygotsky maintained that at 4 or 5, a child’s ability to play creatively with other children was in fact a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator, including her vocabulary, her counting skills or her knowledge of the alphabet. Dramatic play, he said, was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves, to conquer their own unruly minds. In the United States, we often associate play with freedom, but to Vygotsky, dramatic play was actually the arena where children’s actions were most tightly restricted. When a young boy is acting out the role of a daddy making breakfast, he is limited by all the rules of daddy-ness. Some of those limitations come from his playmates: if he starts acting like a baby (or a policeman or a dinosaur) in the middle of making breakfast, the other children will be sure to steer him back to the eggs and bacon. But even beyond that explicit peer pressure, Vygotsky would say, the child is guided by the basic principles of play. Make-believe isn’t as stimulating and satisfying — it simply isn’t as much fun — if you don’t stick to your role. And when children follow the rules of make-believe and push one another to follow those rules, he said, they develop important habits of self-control.

Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations. In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time, though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the children were able to remember twice as many words.

Parents and teachers should emphasize active learning and encourage children to play and explore. And I bet it’s true that complex role-playing in preschool teaches many valuable life lessons, including self-control.

Posted by James on Monday, September 28, 2009