Some classic games help limit anti-social behavior

Kids everywhere have played Simon Says for generations without the slightest inkling that such games may be preparing them for success in the classroom and the work world.

Psychology researchers say the game is one of many that draw on the crucial capacity to restrain impulses and exert self-control. Until recently, many experts believed that teachers could do little to foster those skills in young children, thinking that kids would either develop the knack over time or require medication such as Ritalin to correct attention disorders.

But new research suggests that ordinary children can benefit from play that gives a mental workout to their faculties of “executive control,” as psychologists call it. One study from last November found that preschool-age kids who spent most of their school hours playing games designed to improve self-control scored better than other kids on a range of tests that measure executive function.

Other work has shown that measures of executive control can predict future success in school at least as well as IQ tests, which gauge only a limited range of mental abilities. Improving executive function could be a promising way of getting kids ready for the real world, said Adele Diamond, a co-author of the study that appeared last November in the journal Science.

Many applications

“You need these kinds of skills in all facets of your life,” said Diamond, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.

Scientists believe executive control comes from an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which underlies much of our ability to make conscious, deliberate choices.

It’s also one of the last brain areas to reach maturity in children, and that shows in the often impulsive behavior of young kids. When young children see someone else with a toy they want, they simply take it. When they want food, they grab it. Executive control includes the power to think twice and avoid such missteps.

Many researchers believe another key aspect of executive function is what’s called “working memory,” the small store of memory that people keep in mind while doing a task such as solving a math problem or spelling a word. Improving working memory also could aid self-control, said Philip David Zelazo, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

Working memory is important for executive function because you have to keep something in mind while ignoring various distractions in the environment,” Zelazo said.

Diamond’s work suggests that schools can teach young children better executive control, just as they now teach skills in math and reading.

Her team had teachers of low-income children use a curriculum called “Tools of the Mind,” which emphasizes having children do planned imaginative play in which they act out specific roles for an extended period.

The theory is that such play helps children develop executive control by forcing them to inhibit actions that are inconsistent with their role and to stick with the plan instead of simply reaching for an alluring toy. Teachers also focused on activities that forced children to take turns rather than have someone else tell them what to do.

Fighting an impulse

To see whether the approach improved the children’s self-control, the researchers administered several formal tests of executive function. In one, children were given a piece of paper with a heart or flower on one side, and they were told to press on the side that does not have an image. Because a natural tendency is to point at the image, having children go against that instinct is considered a good test of their ability to inhibit their first impulse.

The children who received the special play curriculum performed significantly better on such tests than children on an ordinary preschool curriculum, the researchers found.

Parents can help children develop many such executive function skills at home, Diamond said. She suggested reading to children without showing them the pictures, a technique that can make kids use working memory to follow along with the story rather than use the pictures as a crutch.

Games such as Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light also can go a long way toward helping children learn to be guided by their choices rather than their instincts, she said.

“Those are great games that kids used to play a lot more than they do now,” Diamond said. “And they played them for a very good reason.”

Source: Chicago Tribune, United States