A reporter once called about a story she was pursuing about “the conflict between play and curriculum” in preschool. Conflict? What conflict? In preschool, I told her, play is the curriculum.
The reporter’s question illustrates a central challenge for all of us working to ensure that developmentally appropriate instruction and assessment guide efforts to align early education with the K-12 system. Now comes Susan Ochshorn, founder of ECE Policy Matters, with a look at how young children develop critical self-regulation skills when play is integrated into the curriculum. (See “Experiential Learning: Play by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet.”)
Ochshorn draws on a recent presentation by Deborah Leong, who helped develop Tools of the Mind, a curriculum for young children designed to build self-regulation skills.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about executive function lately; like the other great gifts that neuroscience has brought, it has the potential to break through the unfortunate perception of play-based learning as utopian fantasy. Self-regulation, as the non-neuroscientists among us refer to executive function, has to do with the development of the prefrontal cortex, and influences both cognition and emotions. Leong compares this ‘muscle,’ which grows exponentially in the years from birth to 5, to a traffic controller, allocating mental resources to focus on the tasks at hand,” Ochsorn writes.
Executive function, she notes, includes self-control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.
“Levels of executive function have been found to predict academic success better than IQ and social class. Moreover, self-regulation correlates with acquisition of literacy skills, improved teacher-child interactions, and relationships with other children. Emotional regulation is also linked to a child’s ability to control stress while learning. Unregulated children just can’t get down to the important business at hand,” Ochshorn continues.
“Intentional, make-believe play, Leong points out, is the only place where all three components of executive function are simultaneously at work, as she ticks off a long list of play characteristics, including deep engagement, roles with rules, symbolic props, use of language, and voluntary regulation of other and self. Through mature play, children learn to adhere to roles and to rules, they begin to understand emotions and relationships; in short, they begin the process of self-regulation.”