The Link Between Imaginative Play and Self-regulation in Children

The Link Between Imaginative Play and Self-regulation in Children

The research is in. Play does far more than occupy a child’s time. Imaginative play provides the opportunity for a child to learn the skills of self-regulation. And self-regulation, which is a cognitive skill that is part of the broader domain called executive functioning, is a critical developmental skill for children to acquire. The term executive functioning refers to the ability to regulate one’s own behavior. It incorporates a number of elements such as working memory, cognitive flexibility and self-control. Poor executive functioning is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. Good executive functioning facilitates effective development in virtually every domain and is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s I.Q. Let’s talk more about what this means for your child and for our programs at Especially for Children.

Play at EFC

With our focus on The Creative Curriculum approach, we at EFC value self-discovery through play. But after reading Alix Spiegel’s article “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”, I understood that I have not fully realized the benefits of play in teaching children self-regulation skills. As teachers or parents we may think that we promote development of impulse control only when we intervene to tell a child how he/she must behave to conform to the classroom “rules” or household expectations. But as we observe children in their “free-choice” activities, we are given a glimpse of the fascinating ways they are developing their own mechanisms for impulse control – ways of regulating their own emotions and behavior.

Throughout each day at our centers children have opportunities to choose activities that allow them to improvise and create on their own, often with other children. By engaging in make-believe play in the block area, the home living area or on the playground, children are given the chance to create stories and establish the rules of their own play. They engage in “private speech” and in doing so actually begin to self-regulate within the boundaries of their imaginative play. Although there are other parts of the day that are teacher directed, there is substantial time in our days for children to engage in activities which they actually plan and sustain on their own. During these times they are developing organizational and negotiating skills. They are learning that they do not always get their way since their friends have their own ideas that need to be taken into account. They are learning to control their impulses in order to get along with others and play together successfully. They are, in effect, policing themselves.

Alix Spiegel provided other examples of activities that help children gain self-regulation skills. Many of the group games like Simon Says, Freeze-tag, and Duck, Duck, Gray Duck require that children resist the urge to “do their own thing.” In order to play these group games a child must understand the “rules” and participate accordingly. The same is true for games like Concentration where a child has to think ahead, wait for his turn and plan for his next move.

Another opportunity we have at school, as well as one you have at home, is to read stories to children that have examples of people (or animals) who have to wait their turn or be patient to get a desired result. Children relate strongly to stories read to them and can often easily understand the themes and how those themes translate to their own lives and experiences.

Share your story

I would be interested to hear about your child. What are you observing about your child and his/her ability to self-regulate? Have you heard your child engaged in “private talk” where he/she is setting boundaries in play? In sharing your observations, tell us how old your child is and specific ways you see these skills being developed. Or, share your reactions to the article “Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills.” Let’s start a dialogue about this fascinating, and critical, aspect of your child’s development.

Priscilla Williams, President

You can learn more about this topic by clicking this link: The Role of Sociodramatic Play in Children’s Self-Regulation