October 05, 2009

"I want to be the PSYCHIC superhero."

Superhero"How does a psychic superhero help us save the princess?" my playmates asked.

"Um, I'll find traps before we hit them or something," I replied. I proceeded to, every 30 seconds or so, cry out, "Wait! There's a trap!" to the point where my playmates suggested perhaps I was finding TOO MANY traps and should let the other superheroes do something, you know, superheroic in between my obsessive trap-finding.

This was a typical afternoon from my childhood, and one I remember well. A group of kids from our neighborhood were playing an epic game of pretend that spanned several of our connected backyards. We were superheroes on a quest to save the princess, and of course that kind of pretend takes several hours. I was lucky to grow up in a neighborhood where such games were possible, and where we were given free reign to run around between our backyards, relatively unsupervised.

Today I look back on games like that with a smile. But I recently learned that not only was I having fun when I was playing superhero...I may have been learning self-control as well.

A recent article in the New York Times examined various theories behind how to teach kids self-control. Until recently, most kids have been taught self-control with punishments and rewards for bad and good behavior, respectively. But a new Tools of the Mind methodology suggests that kids actually learn better self-control by playing pretend, or specifically participating in "complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours, even days." (I guess the grownup version of this would be Dungeons and Dragons...)

I was skeptical when I first read this. I mean, playing pretend was good for my creativity, but self-control? How could something based on the idea of absolute freedom (where you can be a superhero one minute and a firefighter the next) help your self-control? The answer is, surprisingly, peer pressure.

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.

OK, that makes sense. But then the article goes on further to show just how much a pretend scenario can help kids develop important skills of self-regulation:

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.

Now that's just impressive, and totally makes sense to me. If I were simply told to stand still as a kid, my brain would likely wander and I would lose interest in the activity. But if I were playing pretend and the need to stand still were implicit in the role, I would pour my heart into fulfilling that role. You can read more here (New York Times).

But even if we assume this theory is complete hogwash, there other benefits from extended make-believe play. According to a recent Washington Post article on the loss of play in kindergarten:

Research shows that children who engage in socio-dramatic play have better language skills, better social skills, more empathy, less aggression and more self-control than children who do not.

So what do you think? Does make-believe teach us self-control? What have your experiences been?