Columns, Imagine That

Let Them Play

There was a vacant lot at the end of our block when I was a boy. On summer mornings we would gobble down breakfast and race to the lot to see who was there. It might have looked like we did the same thing every day, but we knew that every day would be different depending on who could play, what we would play, and how we would play it. Some days we were pirates and princesses; other days, kings and action heroes. We spent most of our time doing what probably looked like nothing much at all.

Mike Mann

Mike Mann

Of course, what we were about was the work of a child. According to Adele Diamond, professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, “When children learn to rely on themselves for play time, they’re actually developing critical cognitive skills, including an important one called ‘executive function.’”

Good executive function is all about self-discipline.

Executive function has a number of elements, but perhaps the most important is self-regulation — the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. In fact, good executive function is all about self- discipline. It is better than IQ in predicting success in school and life.

Kids now and then

We now know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated one first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5, and 7 to do a number of exercises, including standing perfectly still without moving. In the 1940s, the three-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the five-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the seven-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In the recent study, the results were very different, said psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

“Today’s five-year-olds were acting at the level of three-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s seven-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a five-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains.

So how do we help our kids have the experiences they need to build executive function skills? The key is imagination. Here are some games and activities that will exercise your children’s imagination muscle:

Complex Imaginative Play

Your child plans scenarios and enacts them for a fair amount of time, a half-hour minimum, though longer is better. Remember playing school? Or pirates? Realistic props are good for very young children, but otherwise encourage kids to use symbolic props that they create and make through their imaginations.

Laura Mann

Laura Mann

Activities That Require Planning

Games with directions, board games, patterns for construction, recipes for cooking, for instance.

Simon Says

This game requires children to inhibit themselves. They have to think and not do something that helps to build self-regulation.

Storybook Reading

In addition to fostering language development, children’s stories are filled with characters who model good self-discipline. For example, in Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could, who could forget the little blue engine’s chant? “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” Also, wordless picture books are helpful; check your local library.

Encourage Children to Talk to Themselves

Like adults, children spontaneously speak to themselves to guide and manage their own behavior, often using self-guiding comments picked up from their interactions with adults.

The good news is that all of this kind of play comes very naturally to children (and adults) when given the chance. And best of all, it costs next to nothing. Imagine that.

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. Michael Mann is an award-winning storyteller (, a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2009, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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