Columns, Imagine That

Are you talking to yourself?

Encouraging creativity in children

He voiced, “Up, then down, … and aroooound.” Four-year-old Tyler sat in the sandbox with his yellow plastic truck, maneuvering the truck around an obstacle course of sand piles. I sat in a lawn chair nearby, pretending to read a book, but watching out of the corner of my eye as Tyler contentedly played by himself. When he spoke, he wasn’t speaking to me or to anyone else. He was engaging in a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as private speech.

Oftentimes, when children play alone, they will talk to themselves during their activities. Most adults look upon this with puzzlement; I have seen adults attempt to get in on the conversation when they see a child playing alone and talking aloud.

Do you remember talking to yourself while you played alone as a kid? Many of us were too young to remember, but most kids do it. When children talk to themselves during playtime, they are in fact going through an important rite of cognitive development.

Laura Mann

Our internal monologues are instrumental in developing willpower, ambition, and determination.

Private speech was first studied by psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget. In recent years, psychologists have determined that private speech is very important in childhood development.

Vygotsky and Piaget developed theories about private speech in the early part of the 20th century. Vygotsky believed that private speech played an important role in the development of self-regulation. However, Piaget maintained that private speech was part of an egocentric phase of cognitive immaturity that children grew out of when they learned to communicate with others.

In recent years, child psychologists have found that Vygotsky’s theory was closer to correct. Children engage in private speech most often from ages two to seven, after which the private speech doesn’t go away. It becomes internalized, and we think to ourselves what we as children might have said aloud.

As adults, this “internal monologue” helps us in everyday life. When we encounter a problem, we think our way through it, often giving ourselves encouragement along the way. Our internal monologues are instrumental in developing willpower, ambition, and determination. However, we are not born with this internal monologue; when we are young, we practice it during playtime … out loud.

Finding your voice

Around age two, children begin learning impulse control. This is a time when many parents choose to begin potty training, which takes advantage of this stage in development. Children begin to understand what it means to undertake a task with a goal in mind; for example, I want this and I must do this to get it.

They also begin to figure out how to act in accordance with social expectations: At two, a child begins to realize that other people react to their behavior, and they can alter their behavior to get a different reaction from people around them. As their impulse control functions become more sophisticated, children learn more about appropriate behavior, the reactions of others to certain types of behavior, and their own emotions in certain situations.

Studies have found that self-regulation develops because of experience. Children test what they can get away with and how they want to behave, and their brains store this information and build upon it. Through play, children might act out a scenario, talking their way through it to help their brain work out the situation and its outcome.

We know that play is fundamentally important to early cognitive development. Solitary play, during which children can test out behavior and scenarios through private speech, is just as important as social interaction with other children. It develops skills that become fundamental to daily problem-solving during later years.

The next time you see your children talking to themselves during solitary play, recognize it as their brains gathering and storing information that will help them exponentially as they grow into adulthood. Imagine that!

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. She often co-authors the “Imagine That!” column with her father, storyteller Michael Mann. This column was written by Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2011, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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