Creative, open-ended play is so January . Sunday's NYT magazine reports that classrooms are achieving dramatic results by pushing kids to create a "play plan" before they hit the sandbox. Po Bronson wants us to try this at home . I'm advocating a little parental self-control.
Reading the description of the "Tools of the Mind" program (which had already filled me with preschool envy, based on a similar piece in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's NurtureShock ) reminded me strongly of the Marshmallow Experiment . This long-term study, devised by Stanford professor Walter Mischel, has much going for it besides its irresistible title. It's simple, easy to replicate at home, and apparently amazingly predictive. Give a child a marshmallow, tell the child that if he waits to eat it, he can have two marshmallows when you come back, leave, and observe. If your kid waits, long-term life success surely lies in his future. If not, you have some work to do.
That's a gross oversimplification, of course, but the marshmallow experiment and other studies have led many researchers to conclude that it's self-control, more than innate ability, that leads to success both academically and socially. One result of a new focus on teaching that self-regulation is "Tools of the Mind." In a "Tools" classroom, teachers use various techniques to teach children to control their emotions and their behaviors, both socially and cognitively. They coach kids to review their own work, choosing, for example, which of ten letter "D's" they have drawn looks best. They teach them to listen to an inner voice while writing letters to avoid distraction ("start at the top and go around"). They play games and do exercises in restraint, like "Simon Says." And then they do really, really well on skills tests.
But the most dramatically different thing done in a "Tools" classroom is to require kids to create something called a "play plan" for daily "mature, extended pretend play." Going to play fire station? Everybody choose a role, write it down, and stick to it. If a "fireman" leaves the "911 operator" and the burning house in favor of a box of blocks, a teacher gently gets him back on task with the question,"Is that in your play plan?" It's that line, and that example of staying "on task" that's the easiest take-away from both the Times article and the NurtureShock chapter on the Tools classroom. I envision thousands of reading parents hovering over the play kitchen, coaching their young pretend chefs. Polly Pockets in your soup? Is that in your play plan?
The Tools program is a total immersion course for kids in the cognitive executive function: planning, controlling impulses, and persistent pursuit of goals. It's tempting to imagine we can recreate it at home just by devoting sudden attention to the make-believe portion of our kids' playdates. Tempting-and impossible. Even if supervising pretend play didn't represent just another thing for the modern parent to beat herself up over (not only is "homeschooling the new black ," but now you have to monitor every minute of "let's be mommies," too), it's missing the point of the curriculum to focus on the single, faddish notion of the "play plan."
What we can do at home is to try harder to teach the life skills that come from solid self-regulation. The notion of directed pretend play seems to support more hovering, but most of what parents can do probably involves less. Dr. Mischel, of the marshmallow experiment, advocates encouraging kids to save their allowance, to wait until dinner, to stare at those wrapped gifts until the birthday party begins. Bronson and Merryman suggest asking a child to rate her own letter-writing or marking a line with a mistake in it instead of correcting a child's homework. Not delivering the forgotten lunch, not extending the tenth reminder of the upcoming book report-those are the tougher, long-term strategies that might help teach a child not to grab the marshmallow before its time. As for failing to put out an imaginary fire? Just pretend it started to rain.