Embracing Motherhood Tools of the Mind: A Play Centered Approach to Learning

Tools of the Mind: A Play Centered Approach to Learning

Although hardly new (created in 1993), there is a revolutionary way of teaching preschool and kindergarten that is more successful that just about any other curriculum out there. It is called Tools of the Mind, and it centers on one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of childhood: play.

Created by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong in conjunction with the Metropolitan State College (now Metropolitan State University of Denver), Tools of the Mind centers on Vygotskian-based teaching methods in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. The essential belief is a cultural-historical theory of psychology where children are active participants in their own learning and construct meaning from interacting with their environment and the people in it.

In the chapter, “Can Self-Control be Taught?” from their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how one of the most important components of the Tools curriculum is the element of play, but not just any play. The Tools curriculum teaches mature, multidimensional, and sustained play that helps children to develop self-regulation and other executive functions of the brain.

Proof That Tools of the Mind Works

During the pilot testing for Tools of the Mind, ten kindergarten teachers were randomly assigned to teach the Tools curriculum. The student population was largely of a lower socioeconomic status, had limited English proficiency, and was basically starting kindergarten a full year behind.

The following spring, when the children took national standardized tests, the students in the Tools classrooms were almost a full grade level ahead of where they should be. In a district where only half of the kindergartners scored proficient, 97% of the children in the Tools program scored did so.

The pilot program was supposed to go for two years, with half of the teachers using the standard district curriculum as a control, but the principal didn’t want to deprive the other classes of the curriculum providing superior results, so they implemented it school-wide.

In another study conducted in New Jersey where 70% of the students were English language learners, they saw similar success. But it wasn’t just the students’ scores that were impressive, it was their behaviors as well. The students in the control group being taught the standard curriculum had extremely disruptive behaviors (such as kicking a teacher, biting another student, throwing a chair, and cursing) on a daily basis. But these kind of reports never came from the Tools classes.

So what is the Tools curriculum and how is it superior? There are many different components of the program, but the most distinguishing feature is the element of play.

Tools of the Mind in Action

When you walk into a Tools classroom, you will know right away what the make believe theme is (pet store, fire fighters, hospital, space, etc.).  You will see props such as signs, banners, and pictures created by both the students and the teacher around the room, and there will be a buzz in the room as children are deeply engrossed in what they are doing while using language to describe their roles and actions. The teacher can be found interacting with the children by helping them to stay in their role, modeling language, and explaining concepts. One of the major components of the Tools classroom is mature make-believe play.

Components of Mature Make-Believe Play

  1. Scenario: If the theme was “fire station”, the students would first learn all about fire stations by reading books, watching videos, and maybe even taking a field trip. Then, the teacher would organize the room into different areas such as the fire station, a house that needs saving, the 911 operator station, and a fire training camp.
  2. Roles: Before children begin playing, they tell the teacher their chosen role (pump driver, 911 operator, fireman, family that needs to be rescued, etc.).
  3. Play Plans: Then, the children draw or write about what they are going to be and what they are going to do in that role. If kids can’t write they draw a picture or use the sound maps around the room to try their best.
  4. Extended Time Frame: As they play, children stick to their plans and stay in character for a full 45 minutes. If they get distracted, the teacher will gently remind them, “Was that in your play plan?” On different days of the week, children choose different roles in the scenario.
  5. Language: Children use language extensively as they discuss who they are each going to be and what will happen during the play. During play, they adjust their speech depending on their role.

Other Components of the Tools Curriculum

All of the components of the Tools curriculum work together to create children who are not merely behaved but self-organized and self-directed. Here are a few additional components of the curriculum that help to foster the executive functions of the brain.

  1. Calendar: Instead of a typical calendar, there is a straight line of days on a long ribbon of paper. This gives children a linear sense of time.
  2. Sound Map: Instead of the alphabet being organized A to Z, it is sorted into clusters of consonants with similar sounds (c, k, q) and vowels called a sound map that children use to help them sound out the words they are trying to spell which fosters independence in writing.
  3. Buddy Reading: The children face each other and one holds up a sign with a pair of lips and the other holds up a sign with a pair of ears. The child with the lips flips through the book telling the story he sees in the pictures while the other child listens, and then they switch. This is an excellent pre-reading strategy that teaches kids about listening, retelling, and self-control.
  4. Simon Says: This game requires restraint and teaches self-control.
  5. Graphic Practice: The teacher puts on music and the children practice drawing spirals and shapes. When the music stops, the children have to stop their pens. This is another example of teaching self-control.
  6. Talking Out Loud: When children learn how to write, say the letter c, they’ll say in unison, “Start at the top and go around” as they start to print. No one ever stops the kids from saying this mantra out loud, but after a few minutes, the chorus lulls to a murmur and children simply mouth the words to themselves. This private speech is a form of self-reflection.
  7. Letter Checking: When a teacher writes the letter D on the board, she’ll write four versions of it and ask the children to help her decide which is the best D. Then children do the same thing with their own writing and with each other’s writing. This teaches self-analysis.
  8. Clean Up Song: Children know to start cleaning up when they hear the song. They start to realize how long they have to clean up based on the where the song is and this is another example of teaching self-regulating behavior.

Why Tools of the Mind Works

During mature, multidimensional, sustained play, children are developing the pre-frontal cortex of their brains, which is the region that governs executive functions such as planning, predicting, controlling impulses, persisting through trouble, and orchestrating thoughts to fulfill a goal.

  • Abstract Thinking: Almost everything in a classroom requires that children understand the connection between reality and a symbol. The letters of the alphabet are symbols for sound and speech, the map on the wall is a symbol of the world, the calendar is a symbol to measure the passage of time, words on a piece of paper represent actual things, and so on. During play, when children are using some desks and chairs as a fire engine and when their play has interacting components using different symbols, they are holding multiple abstract thoughts in their head and stacking them together. This is very challenging and stimulating for the brain.
  • Self-Reflection: Having an internal dialogue that engages a thought conversation within the mind is the exact opposite of an impulsive reaction and something that students in the Tools curriculum do on a regular basis through play and other activities. After playing, children reflect on how well they followed their play plans. During writing, they circle the letter that they made the best. While making their letters, they say little chants together. They also check their own work or a buddy’s work. All of these things support metacognition (thinking about how we think).
  • Planning: By making a plan for what they are going to do during their play time, children are creating a situation that doesn’t rely upon impulsive responses. This is the very beginning stages of goal setting and sets them up to persist through difficulties.
  • Engagement: Trying to get young children to sit still and listen to the teacher during lecture times is very challenging for the students who just can’t seem to stop moving, but in the Tools program, children are so thoroughly engrossed in what they are doing, that they stay focused and do not get distracted. Being able to attend to one thing for an extended period of time is training their brains for longer and longer engagements which is one of the key hallmarks of learning.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: Children aren’t distracted because they are in control of what they are doing. They are empowered by their ideas, and they are motivated by their own desires. In their book NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkley, who explains that, “Motivation is experienced in the brain as the release of dopamine. The motivated brain, literally, operates better, signals faster.” So In the long run, this type of motivation is something that will strongly outweigh the motivation of a child just trying to please the teacher.
  • Self-Control: As children are engaged during sustained imaginative play and given the opportunity for self-reflection, they are learning how to practice self-control in a way that makes sense for them, not to please someone else. This constant feedback and self-analysis leads to children being able to govern their own thoughts and actions in ways that best fit any given situation.
  • Confidence: If you ask a child to copy something from the board, he might feel intimidated thinking that he won’t be able to make his handwriting as good as the teacher’s, but if you hand him a pad of paper during imaginative play and tell him he needs to write down the order for the pizza shop, he’ll just start writing, even if he’s not making any real words. Because the action is important to him, he sees beyond it to the function rather than just the action itself.

In Conclusion

Tools of the Mind is a very successful preschool and kindergarten curriculum that is taught nationwide. (To see if there is a Tools school near you, click here.) But even though I am a huge advocate of it, I still don’t think it is as good as what I can provide at home. (Click here to read my blog about how I use the Tools model to encourage creative and imaginative play at home.)

Basically, I love using the Tools curriculum as a guideline for how I structure my time at home with my little ones and to justify the tremendous amount of time I dedicate to encouraging their development in creative and imaginative play, but I only get to have them with me for a little while before they venture off into the world, and I guess I’d just like to prolong it as long as possible. 🙂 I hope that when they are older and they think back to their childhoods, they will have the fondest memories of fantasies, far away lands, adventures, discoveries, and most of all…fun!