Friday, February 29, 2008

Creative play and attention deficit disorder

The decline in creative play by today's children may be leading to a decline in self-regulation skills. So say psychologists Adele Diamond and Deborah Leong in a segment on yesterday's National Public Radio Morning Edition. Spending large chunks of their days in front of screens and in structured extracurriculars, too many of today's children have too few opportunities for open-ended play.  Now mostly regulated by adults, they aren't developing the self-regulation skills that kids once acquired as a matter of course.  

Reduced self-regulation, Diamond proposes, may characterize many of the increasing cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder:  "I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all but many, just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation, the executive functions early."

It's probably only a matter of time before education professors cite Adele and Leong's proposals as one more justification for the unstructured, child-centered learning that predominates in so many of today's right-brained classrooms.  In fact, the preschool classrooms that most closely enact Adele and Leong's recommendations, those that follow Leong's Tools of the Mind Curriculum, combine creative play with structure:  open ended play sessions begin with children filling out "paper work" to spell out their intentions--e.g., playing "bookstore." 

Indeed, too little structure can sometimes impair a child's ability to regulate him or herself.  In my interviews with parents of left-brain elementary schoolers, I've heard of child after child flailing amid the clutter and bustle of today's hands-on, child-centered classrooms: kids shuffling from activity to activity; blocks clunking, beads sifting, staplers crunching; twenty plus voices chattering simultaneously; twenty plus bodies squirming side by side on a carpet. For the left-brain child, who processes only one thing at a time, the result is sensory overload.   Many left-brainers end up acting up, tuning out, and/or failing to complete their assignments, raising, time and again, the specter of Attention Deficit Disorder.

So, yes, we need to give our children  more chances to play in open-ended, imaginative, self-regulating ways.  And Tools of the Mind preschools seem to do just this.  But eliminating structure from large grade school classrooms may reduce the more left-brained child's ability to use his or her self-regulation skills to acquire the academic skills that should be the primary focus of school. The best place for imaginative play, after all, isn't the grade school classroom, but the school yard, the back yard, the basement, and the park.

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