Experiential Learning: Play by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

June 12, 2012 at 9:39 am Leave a comment

Originally Posted by Bank Street Alumna Susan Ochshorn, on June 11th, 2012 on her ECE Policy Works blog

Last night, strolling around my NYC neighborhood, I ran into my daughter’s kindergarten teacher.  Gratitude and awe leaped across time, erasing the 18 years since my preschooler made that critical transition to the K-12 world.  Pat Martinez had a classroom like no other: overflowing with colors, textures, print, science projects, books, blocks, plants, and art.  A caterpillar took up residence, metamorphosing right before the children’s eyes.  Stripes, our iguana, visited the garten—just before salmonella fears banished exotic lizards to their tropical homes.  And kindergarten readiness assessment lay in the future.

photograph from Spirit Ship, a short film by Kristin B. Eno, which showcases the original stories children make up as they go along their journeys, both real and imagined.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, and haven’t been for a long time.  But, since my angsty last post (“Testing 1,2,3: Accountability Run Amok” ),  I’ve pushed the pause button on agita.

Executive function and the prefrontal cortex have something to do with this change of mood. For which I have Deborah Leong to thank.  Or her presentation, “The Power of Play-based Education for Young Children: The Link Between Self-Regulation and Executive Function,”  at Giving Young Children the Right Start: Effective Practices for Experiential Learning, a collaboration of the Gesell Institute, the Alliance for Childhood, and The U.S. Department of Early Learning  in early May (an event whose very existence also considerably upped my serotonin levels).

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 five, to a traffic controller, allocating mental resources to focus on the tasks at hand.  Here are the three components of executive function:

  • Inhibitory self-control, which allows children to delay gratification, and to stay on task, even when they’re bored;
  • Working memory, which enables kids to take multiple perspectives and hold two strategies in mind at the same time; and
  • Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to adjust mental effort depending upon the task, and to pay attention when the task is challenging.

And here’s why it matters: 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, and they are becoming alarming statistics.  Today, one out of 40 preschoolers is expelled, or three times the rate of K-12 expulsions.  Class size, teacher-child ratios, duration of day, teacher credentials and education levels, as well as teacher stress have all been implicated in this growing phenomenon.   Early childhood mental health consultation is increasingly seen—and indeed, welcome—as a viable strategy for changing this calculus. But it’s not enough.

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.  We can’t turn back the clock, concedes Leong, to a time when play ruled and kindergarten was not, alas, first grade.  But we can move the average 10 minutes of play per day in kindergarten to the 30 or 40 minutes that children need (Here we part ways: not nearly enough, I say). There is room, she says, for both teacher-directed and play-based instruction.

Debbie Leong, along with colleague Elena Bodrova,  has been purveying this message for years.  And  long before “prefrontal cortex” entered the early childhood educator’s lexicon, kindergarten teachers understood the critical importance of self-regulation to children’s readiness for “the big school.”  They had their Vygotskian theory down pat.   They didn’t need neuroscience to tell them which child had the best shot at a good start.  They lived it, every day, in their classrooms.  Still, it’s great to have ever-more evidence-based ammunition in the advocacy toolbox.


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