Play: Serious Business that Teaches Life Skills

This week I have been reading Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D. and Sam Wang, Ph.D.  The authors describe brain development and child development, linking the two in a very instructive way.  Along the way, they debunk a number of myths, and they offer research data to support all they describe.  While some of the book gets fairly technical in its description brain anatomy and function, it also gives practical examples of ways parents can foster their children’s development.  The authors particularly reassure parents of infants that being a good enough parent and providing a good enough environment is all your baby needs to have her brain develop well.

Aamodt and Wang have an interesting chapter on the development of self control and the importance of play.  Self control develops quickly between 2 and 7 years old.  Then it slows down, but continues to develop through adolescence. People can increase their self control throughout adulthood by practice.

The authors describe a psychology experiment done with preschool children, commonly called the marshmallow experiment.  The researcher shows the child one marshmallow on a table.  She tells the child that she can have two marshmallows if she waits a few minutes without eating the first one until the researcher comes back.  The child can ring a bell at any time to bring the researcher back, but then she gets only one marshmallow. The average wait time for a four year old is six minutes.  The extent to which children can wait on this simple task is correlated with their SAT scores, their ability to cope with stress and to concentrate in adolescence.  It is also correlated with math and reading skill in elementary school.  Self control is also important in social skills.   Children with greater self control on the marshmallow task are rated is less angry and fearful and higher in empathy.  Clearly this simple task measures something that is central to success in school and social situations.

The four year olds who are good at waiting on the marshmallow task use strategies to distract themselves.  They cover their eyes, turn their back, or tell themselves a story.  We know that children and adults (see Will Power by Roy Baumeister, Ph.D.) can improve self-control by practicing.  Of course, it takes self-control to have the discipline to practice.

Parents can provide children with pleasant experiences that offer the opportunity to practice regulating their behavior.  In very young children warm, supportive parenting contributes to self-regulation.  In older children playing board games gives children a fun way to learn self-control.  They have to wait their turn and manage their feelings if someone else is winning.  Of course, if your child consistently loses, you will need to choose a less challenging game.  Consistent failure isn’t fun and doesn’t teach.  In elementary school structured play with others such as in beginning sports or scouts give enjoyable opportunities to practice self-regulation.  Multi-step activities like art or building projects also help children maintain self-control so that they can achieve the goal.  Imaginative play also contributes to this skill set.  In imaginary roles children practice skills they need to manage the social and academic world.  When playing school, one child gets to be the teacher and another has to take instruction.  Pretend roles call for practicing self-control that might be difficult in real life. For instance, the authors note that a four year old who is asked to stand still like a guard outside a castle will stand still four times as long as a four year who is simply told to stand still.

In play children learn to regulate their own behavior.  Self-regulation is a skill that children then bring to whatever setting they are in.  Aamodt and Wang value self-regulation over learning to follow rules or obey adults’ requests.  It is a more adaptable skill that is not dependent on a particular situation?

What is your experience in teaching your child regulate her behavior?  Have you found that particular activities have fostered growth?  I would be interested to hear.


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Photo credit:  Elsewhere Artist Collaborative on Flickr


8 Responses to “Play: Serious Business that Teaches Life Skills”
  1. Rachelle Norman says:

    Very interesting! As the mom to an almost-two-year-old, I found this particularly helpthaful. I definitely see how self-control is a skill almost more valuable than obeying rules.

  2. dr.cstone says:

    Thanks Rachelle. I found the book quite interesting, but sometimes a little heavy on the physiological stuff, for my needs. And yes, when you think about it, self control or self regulation is something we can bring to a situation–more flexible in the long run.

  3. Carolyn,

    Self-regulation seems to be the foundation for good self-care later in life. Thanks for the synthesis of research into some practical, actionable suggestions.


  4. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Ann,
    Good point. It’s hard to think of any part of life that doesn’t benefit from good self-regulation,isn’t it?

  5. Hi Carolyn – thanks for the introduction to this book and also your take on creating self-regulation. I think warm, sensitive parenting is key to helping a person build proper emotional scaffolding and thus good physical self-control. And warm sensitive parenting is a broad statement covering so many things….like kindly discussing behaviors and kindly setting kind limits rather than putting down your child and with-holding love. Interesting that self-control develops more strongly between 2 – 7,, thanks for the info. take care, Kathy

  6. Arlene Johnson says:

    Thanks for sharing this research and the tips for helping children develop self-regulation.

  7. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Kathy,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree that warm, sensitive parenting includes setting limits as well as hugs and snuggles.

  8. dr.cstone says:

    You’re very welcome. The book is pretty interesting. Lots of science combined with useful suggestions for parents.