Once Upon A Time ... Tales of Executive Functions at Work
April 22, 2012
Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.
This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on April 15, 2012.
In the glorious days before homework ruled our evening household schedule, our elder daughter, Leslie, would come home from nursery school and see to the lives of all 27 children single-handedly. She knew precisely what each child was doing, and helped him or her carry on with many adventures. Occasionally, we would come into her bedroom and see their world for a moment in time, a panorama of drama and action sprawled before us from one end of her rug to under her bed. Through our naïve adult eyes, the whole community seemed frozen in motion. Leslie knew otherwise.
I have never asked Leslie much about the world that lived within her bedroom kingdom. As much as we longed for a live-action glimpse, or in our weaker moments as developmental psychologists, to mike her dialogue, we never did. The complex world of a doll house and castle existed only for one person in our family.
On occasion, a worry would creep in. Was I being a bad Mom? Maybe we should have other friends come over and join her play. Or maybe we should put a limit on Playmobile world time. Was I creating an isolated child? What if she never played with anything else?
The worry would fade when I saw her at nursery school. She had a social life with peers 8:30 am to 3:30 pm every day. She had a host of activities and could frequently be spotted in dramatic play with some best friends. She had arguments and conflicts, laughter and bemusement. Her expressive language skills were delightful and amazing, and she looked forward to everything (except nap) every day.
So what do we make of a child who wants to play with the same type of toys daily? Are they learning anything? Is intensive play a red flag?
During those years, I understood a chunk of what she was learning. Role playing, even when you are the puppeteer of multiple characters, requires extensive perspective-taking skills. Each character represents a different perspective, no matter how simple (sister, mom, cat, dog). Just for the characters to have a dialogue requires a child’s perspective taking skills to kick in. When actual children are the characters, they lose the ‘puppeteer’ advantage and have to constantly engage in a give and take of ideas, modifying roles and storylines to keep the play in motion. Between her home kingdom and a dynamic nursery school classroom, Leslie had both experiences daily.
I also understood the literacy connection. Role playing is storytelling; in fact, it is often literacy at its finest because it is the co-creation of shared meaning. As dramatic play skills leap forward during the preschool years, children gain the ability to weave increasingly complex plot lines, elaborate on a character’s role, and change the ending! This involves planning, sequencing, and expressing ideas clearly enough that others understand your intention and meaning.
What I didn’t understand until a few months ago was the intensity of focus, working memory, self-regulation and cognitive flexibility skills at play each day in Leslie’s kingdom. She could sustain her focus for an hour to two hours in active play. Her working memory was in full gear as she held each character’s story line in her head so that the bigger drama of the kingdom could unfold. Sustaining her attention acted like cross-training in self-regulation. And cognitive flexibility? She had 27 characters beckoning to her imagination.
As I think back, I see my younger self pondering the repetition of her play. But that’s just it… it wasn’t repetitious. Every day the life of the kingdom moved forward. When I carefully tiptoed through the kingdom to crawl into her bed for story time, there was a newly arranged scene of characters frozen in time, waiting for their next adventure. The passion and pleasure of her interests set a stage for in-depth exploration of ideas and problem-solving in a world limited only by her mind.
It was a bittersweet day when she moved the kingdom down the hall to her younger sister’s bedroom. Yet I watch the characters live on in her unfolding life story of becoming an early childhood music teacher.
PS I can’t wait to unpack the kingdom for my grandchildren someday.