|Written by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.|
Creative play forms the triangle of a child’s self-control
Self-control begins very early in development. Before a baby is born, she perceives her mother’s routines for rest and activity. In the post-natal world, newborns continue to respond to patterns.
Look at the development of self-control as a triangle. Self-regulation—a baby’s ability to be soothed and comforted—is the first element of the triad. Babies also have a basic ability to self-sooth. They use sensory-motor actions, including staring at a ceiling fan and sucking on their thumb, to accomplish this. In this process babies regulate their “internal states”: they adopt a more regular pattern of sleep, bowel movements, fussiness and periods of quiet alertness. Infants are “programmed” to self-regulate; however parents can facilitate the process by observing their baby and helping her help herself with soothing. For example, they can assist her with finding that thumb, develop routines that are in line with their baby’s schedule and refrain from over-stimulation.
The period of self-regulation in infancy leads to self-control of impulses and behavior in late toddlerhood and early childhood. A child’s unique temperament will affect this stage. A “spirited child” will need extra help in managing her intensity. Remember, temperament is minimally modifiable. Parents can, however, influence how their child expresses her temperament. The process of positive discipline is essential for teaching children self-control. This must include strategies for managing big feelings and working things out with friends.
Just as in infancy, however, a young child also has an active part in her own self-control development. Recent research has shown that pretend play may be an important way children advance their own social skills. This makes sense when you observe children pretending. They assign roles to each other, use language and planning skills and adopt strict rules. For example, if the “mommy” in the play house suddenly adopts the “daddy’s” role, believe me, it will not be tolerated by the other children who are playing. Interestingly, this sort of “soci-dramatic” play stimulates the frontal lobes, which is the part of the brain responsible for self control.
The apex of the triangle is attention-control. This top is only sturdy if it rests on a solid foundation of self-regulation and self-control. Unfortunately, we are expecting children in preschool and kindergarten to be able to pay attention at desks for very long periods in order to learn pre-academics. Children seem to have less and less time to play pretend. Some schools are cutting recess short to increase teaching time.
At home, the picture is no better. Children are often over-scheduled with lessons or sports and spend a good deal of time in the car or in front of a screen. And toys are usually too literal, not requiring a child to make-believe (e.g. talking dolls, play food, a perfectly appointed play kitchen). The down side of this is inattentive children that are frequently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
A recent study by Walter Gilliam at Yale University found that preschool is the period when children are most likely to be expelled from an academic program. Perhaps the reason for this sobering statistic is that schools have expectations beyond what is reasonable for a young child. What children require to succeed in school is not ABC’s and 1,2,3’s. It is the foundation of self-regulation, self-control and attention-control.