Can the right kinds of play teach self control? by Paul Tough

Recent years have seen the emergence of a concept in the field of early childhood education that may be the answer to many a doubt in the world of education. The term is ‘executive function’; agreeably more suitable to a corporate office, but which, surprisingly has been found to answer many questions related to children; their behaviour patterns, and their future success.

Executive function was formerly a neuroscience term; now it refers to the ability to systemize one’s thoughts and deal with information as well as distractions in an organized and suitable way so as to be able to concentrate on the task in hand, and complete it to his satisfaction. The criteria of ‘self regulation’ that this type of function entails is extremely important for success in life, both short-term and long-term; and scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development are convinced that it is more reliable than I.Q. tests to assess a child’s future success in all fields.

The belief that executive function skills are a constant and are fixed by one’s genes and parenting has been negated by many research psychologists; recent studies and experiments prove otherwise. It is believed now that a child’s ability to control his emotional and cognitive impulses may be improved with practice, a truth that has been proven in laboratory experiments, but which regrettably has failed to produce the same result when conducted in classroom settings. A case in point is the findings of Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted a six week long experiment with Grade V students in a school in Philadelphia, making them go through self-control exercises and assist them to systematize their work. The result was discouraging as the children undergoing the training did not fare any better than earlier on. Inspite of the setback, Angela Duckworth is confident that it is indeed possible to enhance executive function in children; what is needed is a more intricate and systematic programme.

It is this belief that has led to the emergence of a programme called ‘Tools of Mind’ based on the teachings of an early 18th century Russian psychologist called Lev Vygotsky; whose ideas were recently developed by two early childhood scholars called Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova. They have worked on Vygotsky’s teachings to frame a curriculum for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, which covers not only the content but also the process of teaching with a full-fledged manual for teaching and availability of teacher training. Their contention is that this tool has the ability to reach out to all children, even the ones with special needs. They state that the magic word for self-regulation is ‘play’; not free-play but ‘mature dramatic play’ wherein the children do role playing which trains them to order their unruly minds and lead them in the right direction. While one group of early childhood educators favoured the pre-academic approach to prekindergarten and kindergarten, another group contended that early education should just be a period of unrestrained fun and exploration. Vygotsky believed in the second idea, but with a difference; his idea of ‘fun’ was not unregulated fun, but ‘fun’ that would be under guidance, one that would teach children to ‘think’. To this end, children at this stage should be taught to be master of their thoughts through the use of ‘private speech’ which means talking to themselves as they play; as well as make use of ‘mediators’ which are objects to remind them how to do a specific task.

The principle of behaviorism, wherein a child is rewarded for good behaviour and punished for any wrong-doing, is discarded in this programme. Instead, the regulators are the ones that come from within, not external forces that propel a child to behave in a socially approved manner. Vygotsky was of the opinion that this tool of self regulation that children use at this early stage leads to future success; and is followed in the ‘Tools of Minds’ classrooms. The results have been favourable, proving that this technique indeed works. However, the wide range of the activities that this programme entails makes it difficult for researchers examining it to conclude which of the tools work, and which are not so effective. What is sure is the fact that this programme works on the principle of ‘structured play’, thus blurring the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’, because ‘regulated play’ is in some ways ‘work’. The positive is that this ‘regulated play’ is fun for the children, and also educative; leading to success in the future. And that is what early childhood education should be all about.



  • Do you think Vygotsky’s philosophy of encouraging executive function through play will work across all types of kindergartens?
  • How will it work with children with learning disabilities? What should be the ideal size of a classroom for applying this system?


Paul Tough (2009). Can the right kinds of play teach self-control? Retrieved from:


3 thoughts on “Can the right kinds of play teach self control? by Paul Tough

  1. In my opinion, Vygotsky set the foundation to explore executive function while Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova implemented his theory into play, specifically dynamic play. I like this article. Based on their findings and Vygotsky’s I do think that executive functioning can enhance through play. At the beginning of kindergarten children’s theory mind have increased exponentially, in so that egocentrism and self-regulations skills are mastered appropriately in young children.

    Through play is when children learn to share, problem solve, negotiate, and develop self-advocacy skills, and resilience. Play can be applied to kindergarten classes that are synthesizing this information and tailor fitting it to the specific needs of children in the classroom. However, I do believe there are some challenges because all children develop differently, so we must take into account that “one size does not fit all”.

    Integrating play for disable children vary. Actually what population are you referring too? Children with ADHD, OCD or Autism are likely to have difficulty with play due to behavioral impulses, repetition, hyperactivity, impaired ability to initiate and respond to opportunities to share experiences with others, and irregularities when playing with toys. Children with a more impaired disability will be challenging to implement play. The ideal classroom size for this system should be relatively small, which increases student to teacher ratio and one-on-one is fostered in a small setting. Research has shown when teachers provide a warm and secure environment children are more likely to succeed.

    What are some strategies you have that would benefit children with physical disabilities in play?

    Retrieved from


  2. I wanted to comment on curriculums and not to answer the questions you pose. Those questions will require research by a team of professionals to address the various disciplines that may contribute to an effective research-based answer in my perspective. The team could possibly include: Special Education Educators, Pediatrician, Psychologists, School Administrators, etc.
    In terms of curricula, Tools of the Mind focus on “Promoting intentional and self-regulated learning in Pre-School and Kindergarten” (Tools of the Mind, 2015, para. 1). I read some of the information on Tools of the Mind, it was interesting to see“Neuropsychological research on the development of self-regulation/executive functions in children” (Tools of the Mind, 2015, para. 1) is the basis for Tools of the Mind.
    I am familiar with High-Scope and Creative Curriculum. The program I service uses Creative Curriculum a research-based curriculum focusing on: Social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and language development. The areas/Teaching Strategies’ Goals align with the common core standards: Mathematics, Social Studies, The Arts, English Language Acquisition, and Science and Technology.
    The Creative Curriculum was also influenced by Vygotsky. “Lev Vygotsky examined the social aspects of children’s play and theorized that children think in complex ways (Shore, 1997). As children play, they make rules, use symbols, and create narratives. Vygotsky thought that adults and more knowledgeable peers enhance a child’s ability to learn through play because they model and encourage more advanced skills. He found that children talk to each other during social play about what they want to do and
    How they are going to play. He thought that such talk enhances self-regulation. Newer research supports Vygotsky’s theories. Complex sociodramatic play is linked to the development of self-regulatory competence and may be particularly beneficial for children who are impulsive or less advanced in self-regulatory development (Elias & Berk, 2002)” (Research Foundation, 2015, pg. 6).
    I thought it would be interesting to note Lev Vygotsky’s contribution to current research-based curriculums.


    ps. Clarrissa Smith


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