Etherless Learning

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Archive for February, 2011

Supporting imaginative play

Posted by Ming Ling on February 11, 2011

I came across this article when looking for a suitable reference in my last post, and I thought it deserved its own summary for all the information it contains. Educators and parents are constantly seeking concrete descriptions and recommendations for how to help their students and children develop, and this article is helpfully specific in describing the characteristics of mature imaginative play and techniques for supporting it. Below I summarize the main points in each category.

Characteristics of mature play (what to look for and encourage):

  • Imaginary situations
    • Assigning new meanings to people and objects
    • Focusing on abstract rather than concrete properties
    • Inventing new uses for familiar objects
    • Describing missing props with words and gestures
  • Multiple roles
    • Assuming multiple roles, including supporting characters
    • Practicing the actions and emotions of the role rather than their own
  • Clearly defined rules
    • Delaying immediate fulfillment of their desires (and thereby developing better self-regulation)
  • Flexible themes
    • Incorporating new roles and ideas from other themes
    • Negotiating plans across themes
  • Language development
    • Us[ing] language to plan the play scenario, negotiate and act out roles, explain “pretend” behaviors to others, regulate rule compliance
    • Modifying speech intonation and register, vocabulary to code-switch between real and pretend speech
  • Length of play
    • Staying with same play theme across multiple sessions over days
    • Creating, reviewing, revising plans
    • Elaborating on imaginary situation, integrating new roles, discovering new uses for props

How to support imaginative play

  • Intervene sometimes:
    • Beware of intervening so much that the play loses its spontaneous, child-initiated character and changes into another adult-directed activity.
    • Do intervene when children’s play remains stereotypical and unexciting day after day to help kids expand the scope of their play.
  • Create imaginary situations:
    • Provide multipurpose props that can stand for many objects (which also promotes cognitive flexibility).
    • Combine multipurpose props with realistic ones to keep play going and then gradually provide more unstructured materials.
    • Show the children different common objects and brainstorm how they can use them in different ways in play.
    • Encourage children to use both gestures and words to describe how they are using the object in a pretend way.
  • Integrate different play themes and roles:
    • Use field trips, literature, and videos to expand children’s repertoire of play themes and roles.
    • Point out the ‘people’ part of each new setting—the many different roles that people have and how the roles relate to one another.
  • Sustain play:
    • Help children plan play in advance by asking them to record their plans by drawing or writing them. This may help stimulate them to create new developments in their play scenario.

(Italicized text represents direct or near-direct quotations; parenthetical comments represent my own added interpretation.)


Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.

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Diligence vs. competitiveness

Posted by Ming Ling on February 10, 2011

I continue to be disappointed by the mainstream media’s coverage of the “tiger parenting” phenomenon. Although there’s now somewhat more discussion of the specific parenting practices that are good or bad for the child, distinct practices are still getting conflated. One of the latest that I’ve seen claims that “the intense emphasis on hard work comes with a deep, obsessive competitiveness.”

It ain’t necessarily so.

Setting aside my frustration with the media’s reliance on first-person anecdotes rather than research on aggregate populations, I’ll first acknowledge that emphasizing the value of hard work and discipline is indeed very productive. As I wrote in my previous post, it takes about ten years of deliberate practice to attain expertise[1], and those who believe in the value of effort are more likely to invest further effort[2][3] . A recently reported twin study similarly notes that children with greater self-control do better in school and have better health, financial, and social outcomes as adults[4].

But deliberate practice isn’t just rote practice, and worthwhile effort isn’t merely hours of exhaustion. Both require thoughtfulness in figuring out what needs more work and how to tackle it. Likewise, developing self-control requires more than simply being placed in a constraining environment. As I’ve previously noted, the complex and ill-structured world of imaginative play can improve children’s impulse control and self-regulation[5]. Much like the riddle about the town with two barbers, “just because it looks like what you want doesn’t mean it will produce what you want.” Here, it’s not enough just to put children and students through their paces in rigid settings that prevent them from going astray. The theme underlying all of these phenomena is that people need to learn how to decide for themselves how to manage their efforts and how to improve.

So how does this relate to competitiveness? Competition is based on social comparison, or norm-referenced assessment. While it may be inspiring to see the accomplishments of peers as a possibility for oneself, it can also be limiting to endeavor only to best them and not more generally to excel. Even more damaging, people have no control over the performance of their rivals, and chasing this uncontrollable target can foster that worrisome learned helplessness which can dampen enthusiasm, lower self-esteem, and inhibit future effort[6][7]. Instead, criterion-referenced assessment measures performance against fixed goals which can be set up as benchmarks and eventually internalized by the learner. Not only does this provide a clearer way of measuring success than normative comparisons, but it also helps the budding athlete, musician, or student succeed better in the long run.

I fully recognize that Chinese parents can be obsessively competitive about their children’s achievements, even through their self-effacing denials that their children are anything special. And it’s already been documented that the Chinese culture places a high premium on hard work. But these aren’t uniquely Chinese values, and they can be decoupled. The result isn’t some kind of compromise or blend between Chinese and American philosophies, but a selection of those beliefs and practices that have been shown to be productive across cultures.


[1] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[2] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[3] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[4] Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H.L., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B.W., Ross, S., Sears, M.R., Thomson, W.M., & Caspi, A. (in press). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
[5] Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.
[6] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.
[7] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1980). An analysis of learned helplessness: II. The processing of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 940-952.

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