Training Kids to Play?

I just read a Wall Street Journal article titled “Playing Nice: Teachers Learn to Help Kids Behave in School” which I find very disturbing. I feel it is one of those cases where the adults developing and implementing the programs highlighted in the article probably mean well, but in my mind as a parent, who believes strongly that a kid best understands and can best manage the direction and pace of their own development, and should be able to “play” without being carefully supervised and instructed by an adult.

When teacher Deena Randle took over a Portland, Ore., preschool class three years ago, behavior problems were so bad that “kids were bouncing off the walls, pushing and shoving, not listening — it was wild,” she says.

You’d never know it now. When Ms. Randle calls out, “Eyes up here! I need your attention,” one recent day, all 16 pairs of eyes in her class of 3- to 5-year-olds turn toward her. Beyond Ms. Randle’s considerable teaching skill, she and school officials credit a fast-growing curriculum that builds deliberate training in self-control right into the daily routine.

When I hear anybody talking about “training” 3 to 5-year-olds I start to get uncomfortable and read on with a more furrowed brow. Also I initially wonder, were these kids allowed to go outside and run around? Were they cooped up inside all day and expected to play quietly? Were they being drilled in “academic readiness” in a developmentally inappropriate way? The article seems poorly written because the author is not giving us a context for the kids’ behavior.

Behavior problems among small children are a growing issue. The possible causes are many: pressure on teachers to stress math and reading over emotional skills; family instability; a decline in playtime; heavy use of child care; or a rise in learning problems such as attention-deficit disorder.

This initial statement seems out of left field and lacking clarity. Are behavior problems increasing or is adult upset with the fact that kids don’t always conform to adult expectations for their behavior increasing? If adults staffing day-care centers are stressing math and reading to kids who may not be developmentally ready or otherwise wish to be stressed this way, and kids are having less time for play, (which in my understanding of child development is the most important thing a kid can do) I would hope the kids would be demonstrating their discomfort, anything else would be unhealthy. And who is pressuring these adults working with kids in the pre-school environment? Program directors? Supervisors? Parents? Are the adults heightened anxiety at being pressured making the kids anxious as well?

Based on preliminary findings from a federal child-care study, discussed last week at a conference for the Society for Research in Child Development in Denver, the slight increase in behavior problems found in children who spent lots of early time in child care persists all the way to age 15, in the form of more impulsivity and risk-taking.

A couple additional thoughts here. If you are reducing play time and stressing “academic readiness” instead, I would be concerned if there was not at least a slight increase in behavior problems. Human beings, even little ones, are not designed to be compliant slaves. And when did “risk-taking” become a bad thing. Don’t we want to encourage our youth to participate in an entrepreneurial democratic society?

But now, some novel teaching programs are showing great promise in solving the behavior problems, and perhaps in reducing ADD diagnoses.

Are the kids telling us with their behavior that their pre-school environment is developmentally inappropriate for them and we are trying to suppress that natural response?

By giving children more time for dramatic or pretend play, and by building into the school day more lessons in self control, researchers are seeing both big reductions in bad behavior, and gains in cognitive skills.

Giving a kid lots of time to play I have always understood (first as a kid myself and later as a parent) to be the best thing to spur a kid’s development. It is also my understanding (and backed up by child development research I believe) that kids learn self control through their own self regulated play. Being given lessons in self control seems like an oxymoron, like trying to motivate people to be self-motivated. Finally, I am uncomfortable with the focus on reducing bad behavior rather than maximizing child development.

The findings have value for well-behaved children too; research shows behavior problems among a few children tend to drag down other kids’ conduct.

Here is that hierarchical control model at work, defining the goal to have well-behaved children who are prepared for adult instruction. The goal is not to understand that the kids with behavior issues are perhaps the canaries in the coal mine, but simply how to eliminate behavior problems and have the entire group under control.

Daily playtimes are a centerpiece of the curriculum used in Ms. Randle’s Head Start classroom, “Tools of the Mind” — which incorporates training in “executive function,” or the mental ability to control impulses and focus on new information, into children’s routine.

I agree that daily play is the natural centerpiece for most children’s development, but it is also naturally child, rather than adult led.

Before playtime each day, they plan a role for themselves during an imaginary trip to the beauty shop, barber shop or library, represented by play structures along the walls. Then, they act out the roles for 45 minutes, with children helping each other stick to their roles. A boy who has chosen to be the baby, for example, would be prevented from going off track and starting to order everyone around, because he would spoil the playtime for everyone.

This sounds to me like adults intervening and usurping kids natural urge to manage and adjust their own imagination play by turning in into an adult-managed lesson with a very directive adult-set goal of establishing “executive function”. I think it is only with great hubris that adults can think we can teach children executive function by controlling their play.

“It’s the kind of play you and I engaged in during the summer, when you’d play the same thing for a month, like ‘Knights and Castles,’ ” says Deborah Leong, co-creator of the program with Elena Bodrova.

Yes and no! I am glad that they are acknowledging the importance of play in development, I think that is a big step forward for these educators who keep pushing academics on kids earlier and earlier, against most child-development wisdom.

Today, “what parent do you know who opens the door in the summer and lets children rove around the neighborhood?”

Sad but true! We have managed to create communities that are hostile to children and youth. Shame on all of us actually! That’s its own post.

Children learn restraint by working in pairs on math or letters. Each child holds a card with an ear, lips, hand or check mark on it, as a reminder of his or her role — to listen, to read, to do the task or to check a partner’s work. As one child practices a lesson, the other must control any impulse to interfere.

This to me seems so disrespectful of these children. This seems to me like the crudest form of external behavior control, with everything the kids do monitored and second-guessed by adults, rather than letting the kids interact freely with each other and learn from the natural reactions of the other kids they are playing with.

The Tools curriculum is in use in about 400 mainstream and Head Start classrooms in seven states, and 400 more teachers will be trained this year, says Dr. Leong, a psychology professor at Metropolitan State College, Denver.

I think of John Taylor Gatto’s sarcastic invocation of “weapons of mass instruction”. My take is that this is top-down social engineering, training teachers in a mechanism focused on adult behavior control of children.

Another approach, called PATHS, is expanding rapidly in preschools. While many teachers tell children to “use your words” to express anger or frustration, PATHS intervenes earlier in a child’s decision-making about how to behave. Children are encouraged when upset to emulate Twiggle the turtle, a green puppet who pulls into his shell: They stop, cross their arms over their chests, take a deep breath and give a name to their emotions.

Helping kids name their emotions sounds like a good thing to me. Maybe it will encourage the adults to listen to children’s feelings and really acknowledge them, even when those feelings go against the program the adults are trying to pursue with the children under their care.

Also, the Chicago School Readiness Project, developed by C. Cybele Raver, a psychology professor at New York University, trains teachers to manage classrooms in a way that rewards good behavior. Recent studies show all three of these programs sharply curb bad behavior.

I agree with Alfie Kohn who says that kids are “punished by rewards”. Behavior modification is effective, I agree, in exerting control over people, but is that the kind of society we are trying to build? One where people are successfully managed and controlled by their superiors?

To find peaceful classrooms, these examples suggest, parents might look for programs that allow time for free, orderly play; that work to instill self-control in kids, and that go beyond teacher-directed drills to help children learn to make and stick to their own choices.

Sounds like peace at a high price of external control.

From the experience with my own youth, and later as a parent, I do not subscribe to this “control over” paradigm for raising our youth. I instead subscribe to the ideas of alternative educator Chris Mercogliano, a teacher at the Albany Free School, who I have heard speak and has written a book called “In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness”. The book synopsis says…

As co-director of the Albany Free School, Chris Mercogliano has had remarkable success in helping a diverse population of youngsters find their way in the world. He regrets, however, that most kids’ lives are subject to some form of control from dawn until dusk. Lamenting risk-averse parents, over-structured school days, and a lack of playtime and solitude, Mercogliano argues that we are robbing our young people of “that precious, irreplaceable period in their lives that nature has set aside for exploration and innocent discovery,” leaving them ill-equipped to face adulthood. The “domestication of childhood” squeezes the adventure out of kids’ lives and threatens to smother the spark that animates each child with talents, dreams, and inclinations.

As Mercogliano explains, however, there is plenty that those involved with children can do to protect their spontaneity and exuberance. We can address their desperate thirst for knowledge, give them space to learn from their mistakes, and let them explore what their place in the adult world might be.

3 replies on “Training Kids to Play?”

  1. I was recently part of a discussion at my daughter’s school where the subject of recess time came up and how the teachers were handling it. The issues discussed had to do with inclusion and exclusion in play and how the teachers overseeing recess should structure the environment more. I was reminded of this discussion as I read your piece. The point about self-regulating play environments seems conceivably problematic for some parents as they feel their kids are not part of groups that form in playgrounds and so are opted out by the system. I imagine there are theories and practices for subtly shepherding the play of kids to avoid this. I’d be interested in hearing about this.

  2. My initial thought here is to let recess continue to be youth-led free play with adult supervision (for basic safety) but no adult intervention. But I think that the issues that come up for youth during recess are great social studies curriculum for discussion during school about ways to address conflicts build a positive youth community.

  3. I love this picture. I run a small human services organization and wondering if I can have your permission to use this photo in a brochure I am creating?

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