Columns, Imagine That

Playing with tools

Three, four, and five year olds are the most creative beings on earth. Each year I have the pleasure of visiting about 120 preschools. Even if I am asked to present the same program time after time, the children make each presentation unique. The best preschool classrooms encourage these imaginative minds.

Mike Mann

In a typical Tools classroom the calendar is not a month by month grid, but a straight line of days on a long ribbon of paper.

The Tools of the Mind preschools take imagination a step further. Tools of the Mind (Tools), begun in Denver, is an emerging curriculum for preschool and kindergarten. These schools use almost every moment of the day to teach children in some way how to regulate their behavior and emotions. The interesting thing is that this is accomplished by completely engaging their imagination and creativity.

A look into a Tools classroom does not indicate that the results produced there would be dramatically different than most other preschool settings. The casual observer watching it in action would not guess that this type of preschool produces the superior results that they do. In Colorado, New Jersey, Illinois, and Texas — in every type of socio-economic setting — not only do the children do better on things like vocabulary, writing, and IQ, but behavior issues are reduced to negligible numbers. After some initial teacher training, the additional cost of a Tools classroom is zero.

In a typical Tools classroom the calendar is not a month by month grid, but a straight line of days on a long ribbon of paper. There is no traditional alphabet display; instead there is a “sound map” which has a monkey next to Mm and a sun next to Ss. The letters are clustered together with consonants on one map, vowels on another and C, K, Q on another because of the similarity in sounds and the way the mouth and tongue are used to form them.

A day in the life with Tools

The big difference happens when the students arrive. On a typical day, the teacher might announce that they will be playing “restaurant.” The previous week they had learned about restaurants, chefs, and cooks. So you might expect that the children would begin by taking out the dishes, silverware, cooking utensils, a table and chairs, and perhaps a cash register with some play money. Instead, the first thing the students do is write out a “play plan.” With the teachers’ help, they each draw a picture of themselves in their chosen role, perhaps waiter, customer, or chef. Then they attempt to write it out as a sentence. Even three-year-olds write daily. For some, play plans are little more than scribbles representing words, while others use the sound maps to figure out the word’s first letter.

Then they simply play, sticking to the role designed in their plan. This continues for a full 45 minutes, a long time for a preschooler, with kids staying in character, self motivated and self regulated. In this type of play, the children learn capabilities of self control.

After taking on a role, they may not respond except in that role. According to pioneering child psychologist Lev Vygotsky, this play draws the child on to develop higher levels of functioning such as improving memory, language, empathy, and reasoning. Vygotsky argued that in play, children function beyond their average abilities. Play provides great experimental situations in which children explore the rules of their society and culture.

Neuroscientist Adele Diamond and psychologist Deborah Leong, having done many studies on this type of learning, say, “Imaginative play can be helpful at any age, as can dance, music, many sports, or storytelling. What you are looking for is a fun activity that requires sustained concentration, holding information in mind and using it, and something that requires resisting what might be your first inclination. The best kind of play costs nothing and really has only one main requirement — imagination.” Imagine that.

Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.story, a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!” She is a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. This column was written by Mike.

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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