Make believe play to help self-regulation?

In an effort to help my selectively mute/highly sensitive 4.5 year old, I’m doing everything I can to create an environment at home that increases her ability to self-regulate.

I will be starting to post some pictures of the ideas I have gleaned from the net. I am working on coming up with a sensory diet at home. We already have some very useful things – the wonderful thing about the Montessori philosophy is that it relies pretty heavily on sensory activities so we have a head start in that area.

But, in addition, I’m thinking of going unplugged with the TV (yes, we do a lot of non-TV activites, but we still rely too much on TV particularly in the winter and on sick days, and as filler for when I can’t think of something cool to do). We all have heard TV is bad, but we really may not know why.

In a great post regarding Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function, Unplug Your Kids relates a story from NPR’s website that indicates children’s imaginative play is intertwined with executive function and that is a critical skill to have in self-regulation.

From the NPR transcript Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

“Self-regulation is a critical skill for kids.
Unfortunately, most kids today spend a lot of
time doing three things: watching television,
playing video games and taking lessons. None
of these activities promote self-regulation.”

- Alix Spiegel

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.”

I know they tested my daughter’s executive function in a similar way. They asked her to stand still with her left hand outstretched (why the arm I don’t know). They actually timed her ability to do that . She wasn’t quite perfectly still – her arm kept shaking a bit. But I really thought she did pretty well over all. She gave it a great effort. Still, I’m certain that she (as well as her sisters) could use help in the area of executive function.

Laura Berk goes on to say

One reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what’s called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

“In fact, if we compare preschoolers’ activities and the amount of private speech that occurs across them, we find that this self-regulating language is highest during make-believe play,” Berk says. “And this type of self-regulating language… has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions.

So, this line of thinking has gotten me to think very seriously of putting away the TV. I need every bit of help I can get for my child, and if TV is going to come between her and progress, I am willing to go through some very whiny times to ditch the TV.

I’m highly motivated to do this, because after spending $2500 to have my daughter evaluated (of which the insurance covered only $162 of the first $1400), and the prospect of having to pay more out of pocket for private therapies, I figured I could get a jump start at home and we might not need as many sessions.

Oh, and specifically for my hubby, who occasionally reads our blog here, what about that Wii you just bought, and spent great lengths telling me how great it would be for the kidlets?

In a Q&A on a related NPR article called Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control

Almost all people agree that video games can be a downfall for our children. Do you think that Wii gaming is going in a better direction as far as getting children moving with video games? — Carol Halliburton, Dover, Tenn.

Wii will certainly help with visual-motor skills and perhaps reducing obesity, but I do not think it will help with executive functions. A superior Wii player will react automatically. For improving executive functions, you need games that require children to stop and think, where their first impulse would often not lead to the best result. Certainly, a video game could be constructed that challenged executive function skills, but I have not seen any like that. — Adele Diamond

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4 Responses to Make believe play to help self-regulation?

  1. Deneal says:

    That is a great NPR article. Thanks for passing it along and adding your thoughts to it. Makes me happy I recently removed the TV from our family life. Good luck on going unplugged yourself.

  2. growinginpeace says:

    Thank you for the luck. It’s really surprising how easily TV watching creeps up in amount when you aren’t paying close enough attention. But of course, it’s a bit easier now that we can get out of the house and play in the yard instead.

  3. curious says:

    thanks for posting this.
    i googled for “4 year old make believe” and found your blog.
    my little one does a lot of make believe right now and to me it seemed strange/weird because other kids his age weren’t really doing it :( so i felt like my little guy was “weird” and I’m worried about his future in school if he makes believe and others dont that they’ll call him weird…but with this article it actually makes me feel GOOD about his future. Maybe all this make believe is actually very good for him :) I’ll encourage him to keep it up as long as he likes to do it :) thank you so much!

  4. growinginpeace says:

    Curious, you are so very welcome. I have known that some of the types of play we used to do are so much better than the electronic gadgets/video games, but never really understood why.

    I was really worried that about my oldest wanting to play video games more often now that summer is here. Fortunately, I have been pretty good limiting her gaming by making sure we have plenty of board games and other things to do.

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