Important new findings

Linking self-regulation, pretend play and learning in young children

08/21/2013  |  By MARCY GUDDEMI, PHD, MBAE
Early Childhood

Our Mission: To promote the principles of child development for all decision-making about young children.


The study of early childhood education has produced some extraordinary findings as of late. Many tenets of early childhood that we previously just knew or had a gut-level feeling for, now have research to confirm these beliefs; e.g., reading aloud to young children is good for them. For example, I have fond memories of my mother reading to me. 

When I asked my mother how I learned to read, she said that I used to sit on her lap and she would read to me the same books over and over again; and before she knew it, I was reading. She enjoyed reading to me and “just felt” that the activity had to be good for children. Many parents even today would agree. Now, however, we have research to confirm that one of most important things that parents can do to help their children become ready for kindergarten and to learn to read is to read aloud to them.

Pretend play is a childhood activity that all children engage in, or so it seems, and most adults would say, is good for them for many reasons. Four year old children love pretending to go shopping or to be cooking in the kitchen. They will carefully dress the baby doll, get the pocketbook, put the baby in the stroller, push the stroller to the “store,” tell the store owner that he or she needs a chicken for dinner, and then after purchasing the chicken, stroll home and begin cooking.

Even as young as 18 months, a toddler will come over to an adult or another child and pretend to give you something in your hand. Most times you pretend to eat it and the toddler gets much delight in that interaction and keeps giving you more and more invisible things to gobble up! All of this pretend play, research now shows, is the foundation for future learning including using symbols in reading and writing.

Another gut-level tenet of education is that children need to have mastered self-control in order to be successful in school. A child must be able to stay seated and stay quiet while the teacher is talking. A child needs to be able to line up and walk to various places in the school without hitting the neighbor in line with him/her or running ahead of the group. A child needs to wait his/her turn and learn that everyone cannot be first at the same time or all the time. A child needs to learn that there are winners and losers. A child needs to be able to independently stay on task and complete the work assigned to him/her without being distracted or begging for help. Self-control, recent research has found, is part of a larger group of skills called executive functioning. This research confirms that executive functioning is absolutely necessary for success in school and later life, as well.

The most exciting finding today for early childhood education is in the area of brain research. With the help of magnetic resolution imagery (MRI) of the brain, we know that pretend play helps develop that part of the brain that enables a child to have executive functioning skills which in turn leads to learning. Children who have ample opportunities to practice pretend play have higher test scores in both reading and math. Pretend play and executive functioning are linked to numerous other outcomes such as increased language and communication skills, increased creativity and problem solving skills, and increased ability to take perspective of others, to engage in critical thinking, to making connections, to taking on challenges, and to becoming an engaged, self-directed learner. No more mere “gut-feelings” that pretend play is good for children, brain research proves it.

With all this research about the link among pretend play, learning, and brain growth and executive functioning, why is play being eliminated in Kindergarten and PreK classrooms in America?

Recent School Trends and Why People View Play Negatively

“Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.” — Aristotle

“Play is the work of the child.” — Piaget

Unfortunately, many agree more with Aristotle and view play as the opposite of work and the opposite of learning. Sharon Lynn Kagan proposed that many view play as an “oxymoron to school readiness.” The problem with these beliefs is that research shows us how children learn during the early years — and children do indeed learn through play. Undeniably, young children under the age of eight learn very differently than older children. Young children need to explore the environment and use all their senses and interact with others to learn. They need to touch and manipulate objects and to learn by doing. They need to question and be curious and try out their hypotheses. They need to see things and make sense out of what they see. They need to use their language and build vocabulary by interacting with adults and other children. Young children do not learn by memorizing and practicing rote drills on paper. The young child also needs to develop socially, emotionally, cognitively, and physically — in other words, the whole child must develop. All of this learning and development happens during play and playful activities.

So why is play banned from many early childhood classrooms? Note: Early Childhood is defined as birth to age eight.

Here are a few reasons and recent trends that contribute to the lack of play in early childhood classrooms and, consequently, a negative view of play:

  • Politicians and many school leaders lack knowledge of child development and how children learn
  • Politicians and school leaders want higher test scores and accountability and the way to get there is direct instruction
  • Accountability leads to testing and more testing and then “teaching to the test”
  • Teaching to the test is drill and re-drill of facts, not true learning; in reality there is no research to support the practice of drilling facts
  • Merit pay based on children’s test scores
  • Push-down curriculum — the sooner is better phenomenon, Kindergarten is the “new” first grade
  • Common Core Standards — teaching to the standard rather than using them as outcome guidelines

Most politicians, school leaders, and even parents think there is no time for play at school because children need to be busy learning! “Play is under siege!” says Edward Zigler. Given the importance of the first years of life, do we have time to ignore the importance of play in the early childhood classroom?

The Brain and Executive Functioning

New brain research on the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, primary home of executive functioning skills (EF), is dominating discussions of early childhood practice. Stanislas Dehaene of the College de France in Paris calls this front and center part of the brain a “neuronal workspace [whose] primary purpose is to “assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge [so that] our behavior is guided by a combination of information from past or present experience.” Executive functioning consists of:

  • Self-control: Ability to inhibit a dominant response in favor of a less salient one
  • Working memory: Ability to hold information and recall it when necessary
  • Cognitive Flexibility: Ability to change and adjust mental effort

The purpose of the prefrontal cortex of the brain and executive functioning has been associated with two analogies for understanding exactly what EF does. One analogy is literally to think about how an “executive” of a successful company/business manages. This high-level executive knows all that is happening in the company, makes decisions based on information from many resources, has vision and motivation about where the company is going, and can motivate others. For those that do not like the business model, the other analogy is to think of that section of the brain as your “air-traffic controller” (ATC).” The prefrontal cortex of the brain has to take in all the information about incoming data like the ATC does with incoming airplanes. The ATC brain has to ignore what is not immediately most important. The ATC brain has to use past knowledge to decide the right decision for this information and this moment. Finally, the ATC brain has to be flexible if more information comes or changes and/or requires more effort.

Executive functioning (EF) develops during mature, socio-dramatic play! In particular, this mature pretend play develops flexibility of thinking and self-control required for a child to take on another character and play out the role. Even better, as young children build their play scripts with other children, they begin to negotiate and share ideas and build a plan for play — which leads to building executive functions!

The research conducted by the “Tools of the Mind” authors, Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova, on the development of EF during pretend play with other children is quite compelling. “Tools of the Mind” (TOM) curriculum is a play-based literacy program for preK and kindergarten children. During the first half of the year, the curriculum is mainly focused on helping child learn to play and helping children stay in their role for up to 45 minutes of pretend play. Second semester developmentally appropriate instruction is woven into the day. When compared to the control group who received traditional instruction all year long, the TOM children scored significantly higher on both language and math standardized testing.

Even more convincing is the long term benefits of pretend play and executive functioning skills. Research on reading comprehension of middle school students found that children, who could read (decode) but could not comprehend what they were reading, lacked executive functioning development. When researchers reviewed MRI’s of the brain of these “non-comprehenders” compared to normal reading brains, it was obvious that the prefrontal cortex of the readers had significantly much more development! Pretend playing in preK and kindergarten leads to reading comprehension in older children.

Another amazing discovery in the research on executive functioning is that some researchers are finding that EF is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Researcher Adele Diamond of University of British Columbia and Phillip Zelazo of the University of Minnesota say that EF tells us more about how we use our knowledge and skills rather than just what facts we know. EF gives us the ability to go to higher levels of the brain and makes different parts come together in problem solving, to reflect on things more deeply, and to have control of ourselves. EF allows us to put the pieces of knowledge together to achieve more as in “the sum is greater than the addition of the parts.”

A classic study from 1968 by Professor Walter Mischel, a ground breaking psychologist in the field of self-control and will power, enlisted the use of a simple test, called the Marshmallow Test, to discover how much self-control (or EF) a child may or may not have. A three to six year old child is brought into an examining room and given one marshmallow on a plate. He/she is told that he/she “can eat the one marshmallow now or wait here until I return and you can have two marshmallows to eat.” The researcher then leaves for 15 minutes. Some children eat the marshmallow right away, some nibble at little pieces or lick the marshmallow, but some children can wait the full 15 minutes using a variety of strategies to deter them from eating. They look another way, they hold their arms above their head, they swing their feet while nodding their heads, they whine “please come back...,” but they do not eat the marshmallow until the researcher returns. Those that can wait are showing self-control skills and strengthening their executive functioning skills. They can delay gratification — an essential skill in just about everything an adult does. This study also found that by studying those same children over time that those children with higher amounts of the executive functioning area had SAT Scores 210 points higher than those with less executive functioning as children!

In a more recent study that measured levels of executive function of 1,037 New Zealand children, by following the children up into their teenage years and adulthood, it was found that children who could better regulate their impulses and attention were four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs and half as likely to become single parents. In many dimensions of successful, healthy living, the level of executive functioning was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status. Executive functioning skills have lasting adult benefits.

Play and Learning

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” — Chinese Proverb

Young children, birth to age eight years, learn best through play. What does this mean exactly for the educator, administrator and politician? What does this “play” look like? Is it all “play-time?” How much “play?” Is all “play” the same?

There are many types of play in a quality preK and kindergarten classroom. In addition to knowing how play helps children learn, all adults who work with children must understand the basic principles of child development. Arnold Gesell (1880-1961) was a ground-breaking researcher of child development. He carefully documented growth and development over time using cinematography — a new technology at the time — and took thousands of photos and movies and kept copious notes. He was an observer of children. “If we use effective tools, the child reveals himself to all who will stop and listen to what he says, and who, with seeing eyes, will watch what he does.”

Gesell found that all children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. A similar example is the age that children learn to read. Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class. Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade.

The Gesell Institute of Child Development, having just completed a nationwide study of three to six year olds, has found that children are not developing faster today. In fact, they are reaching the major developmental milestones at about the same time as they did when Dr. Gesell first started collecting data over 100 years ago. The Gesell message to educators is that each child has his/her own pace on the path of development and that pace must be respected in the classroom. Knowing where the child is on the path of development informs instruction for that child. Knowing how to plan a play-based curriculum respects the child and child development.

Each classroom of children with its wide variation of both chronological age and wide range of developmental needs presents a challenge to the teacher. Consider the states that still have a late cut-off date for Kindergarten entrance; e.g., in December. Some children enter kindergarten at age four. Other children, as high as 20 percent “red-shirted children” by parents, wait until the following year to enter kindergarten when they are a year older. A teacher could have a classroom with the chronological age span of four and one-half to six and one-half years on day one of kindergarten. The four and one-half year old has very different needs than the six and one-half year old. Fortunately, the well-designed curriculum uses play, or open-ended, hands-on activities, as the instructional strategy to level the differences among children. Play allows each child to enter an activity at his/her own level and the outcome will be the one best suited to the child.

As we plan our programs for young children, we cannot ignore these important new findings from research that are linking self-regulation and executive functioning with pretend play and learning in young children. Some of the findings confirm what we always knew, but some of the new research is so compelling that it would be a disservice to children not to “listen, see, and do” what this research is telling us. Children need to play in order to develop to their fullest capacity as learners and as members of society.

Marcy Guddemi, PHD, MBAE is Executive Director, Gesell Institute of Child Development.
Comments & Ratings

  12/16/2013 11:11:47 AM

Excellent article. Should be required reading for all politicians and anyone who develops curriculum in early childhood education
  9/30/2013 11:53:46 AM
Rhonda Clements 

Professor, Manhattanville College 
Very articles have the potential to make change in today's schools. The information contained in this article is based on sound research and respected theories. I look forward to sharing his article with my colleagues and school administrators that need a rationale for play-related learning experiences.
  9/28/2013 10:14:34 AM

School Admissions Director 
Hooray for Waldorf Education!
  9/25/2013 12:43:08 PM
Dorothy Sluss  

Professor, James Madison University  
This is a very timely article that supports the value of play for young children. Should be read by all who work with young children and their families.
  9/25/2013 12:20:04 PM

Great job