Tools of the Mind, Part I: “Standing a Head Taller” with Deborah Leong - Early Learning Nation

Tools of the Mind, Part I: “Standing a Head Taller” with Deborah Leong

Children learn about different habitats, like the rainforest. Photo: Tools of the Mind

Tools of the Mind combines a curriculum for children ages 3-6 and a professional development program. Dr. Deborah Leong cofounded Tools of the Mind with Dr. Elena Bodrova in 1993. They started with one school district with 15 teachers.

Today, 40,000 children in 23 states learn with the curriculum every year. Early Learning Nation spoke to Dr. Leong about Tools of the Mind’s attitude towards make-believe play and its guiding light, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).

Mark Swartz: Why does make-believe play matter?

Dr. Deborah Leong

Dr. Deborah Leong: Make-believe play is only one of the many kinds of play children engage in during early childhood. It promotes cognitive and language growth, strengthening social-emotional development, creativity and imagination. Vygotsky believed that play is one of the most beneficial activities for development at this age.

His unique contribution to the concept of play is the idea that make-believe play is the first activity where children voluntarily and joyfully follow the rules dictated by the role they are playing and the pretend scenario. Thus, play acts as what he called a “school for self-regulation.” Vygotsky believed mature make-believe play, where children invent complex evolving scenarios with multiple roles allows children to stand a “head taller,” as he wrote in his book Mind and Society.

Swartz: What do you think he meant by that?

Dr. Leong: In Vygotskian research studies, when children were engaged in make-believe play, they were more regulated, able to stand still and ignore distractions more than they could when they were asked to do the same behavior by an adult. We have many examples of children who are unable to wait for a moment in normal classroom activities, but act differently when pretending to be a customer at an ice cream parlor.

Swartz: Where do you see mature make-believe play?

Dr. Leong: It often happens in mixed-age groups in the neighborhood with minimal adult supervision. When you and I were children, we played outside. There were no adults. We planned what we were going to do, and then we then discussed the plan and revised it. We played restaurant, for example, creating rich, complex make-believe scenarios of what happens when you eat out, or we played school, where we played being teachers and students.

Swartz: In fact, I remember spending more time talking about what we were going to do than actually doing the thing.

Dr. Leong: Unfortunately, mature make-believe play is disappearing as children spend more and more time in single-age groups missing an opportunity to learn from older “play mentors.”

Tools of the Mind creates contexts in which children engage in that kind of play. What’s more, every child in class plays with every other child, creating a community of make-believe players.

Swartz: How do you make that happen?

Dr. Leong: We work on the elements of mature play and the social interactions in the classroom. Teachers set up a classroom where children play a role, plan and act out imaginary scenarios, and create props to support what they are playing. Teachers build background knowledge for complex play and bring the child’s culture and family into the classroom.

In addition, we work on helping children learn to play with all of the other children in the classroom. A lot of other preschools have assigned seats, but we make sure children always sit in different arrangements. The research shows when they’re three, four and five, they play with whomever they’re sitting next to so sitting next to someone means new friends to play with.

Swartz: Where did you first encounter Vygotsky?

Dr. Leong: At Harvard in the 1980s, I studied with Courtney Cazden, who was an early Vygotsky scholar. She introduced me to the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which Vygotsky defined as “a distance between the actual developmental level determined by individual problem solving and the level of development as determined through problem solving under guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” That really resonated with me.

Swartz: How did Tools of the Mind come about?

Dr. Leong: In 1992, I was working at Metropolitan State University of Denver and had the chance to invite Dr. Elena Bodrova to visit us from Russia. I wanted to work with somebody who had worked with ZPD in classrooms.

One of the first things she did was help my 6-year-old son break the habit of writing the number 6 backwards. Elena said that Vygotskians would say the problem was not that he didn’t know how to write a 6 the right way, but that he didn’t have the self-regulation to produce the right response at the right time. He just automatically wrote it backward.

She did a very Vygotskian thing: she had him do all of his math problems in pencil, and when he came to his 6, he had to put the pencil down and pick up a red pen. And on the corner of the desk was an external mediator, which had the six written the right way. He changed the pen, wrote 6 the right way, put it down and went back. By Monday, he didn’t need a red pen to remember to write the 6. This personal experience made me want to see how the approach might support learning in our classrooms.

Swartz: How did you get started?

Dr. Leong: Elena and I began working with pre-K and kindergarten teachers to modify typical activities to incorporate these ideas and to figure out how the classroom could be organized to support self-regulation development. This evolved into a curriculum and a professional development program designed to empower teachers with the understandings and tools they need to create positive classroom cultures, facilitate intentional playful learning, and support the development of self-regulated learners who achieve to their full potential—closing the achievement gap for low-income, minority students and dual language learners.

Swartz: What skills are developed with the Tools of the Mind conception of play?

Dr. Leong: We have already discussed such foundational skills as positive relationships with peers, turn-taking and skills related to self-regulation and executive functions, like focusing and sustaining attention, shifting attention and holding things in working memory.

Make-believe play also hones underlying skills: symbolic thinking, language development, and math and literacy concepts and skills. For example, children pretending to play airport can practice math skills like measuring by figuring out if their “luggage” fits the criteria of being “carry-on” or “check-in.” Children practice literacy skills by making tickets and boarding passes. They read each other’s names and airport signs as they pretend to board the plane and take off.

Swartz: Isn’t play different from culture to culture?

Dr. Leong: It is true that what families do at home, what the grocery store looks like, etc., is different in each culture, but what’s constant about make-believe play is that there are roles and rules, and the scenarios. We concentrate on the universal characteristics of mature make-believe play.

Swartz: What would I see if I visited a Tools of the Mind classroom?

Dr. Leong: You would see the children deeply engrossed in make-believe play for a long period of time, talking to each other about what they are going to do together and making props to support the play. Teachers support play by observing and making suggestions to children about props and ideas to keep the play going.

You would see children drawing and writing what about they’re going to play at the beginning of the play period. They follow through with these plans at the very beginning of their play, but of course the plan is just a starting point. Making a plan supports the development of self-regulation and play skills.

Swartz: Can you describe an instance of play that stands out for you?

Dr. Leong: I was watching two boys playing in the hospital center. One of them had drawn a Play Plan showing he planned to be a doctor and was dressed in a white shirt. The other boy planned to be the parent of a sick baby and carried a doll. They walked into the center, and they both grabbed the stethoscope at the same time. I was prepared to see an argument break out between them as they both tugged at the toy. Instead, the boy dressed as the doctor said, “Was that your plan? I’m the doctor.” The other little boy said, “Oops. No, I forgot, I’m the dad,” as he let go of the stethoscope and said, “My baby has a fever. He needs a shot.”

After playing for while, the “dad” said, “I want to be the doctor.” The boys changed roles so that, in the end, they both got to use the stethoscope. Instead of fighting over the toy, they solved the disagreement on their own and engaged in extended positive play.

Swartz: How has Tools of the Mind evolved since Dr. Bodrova and you originated it?

Dr. Leong: First of all, there’s been a tremendous expansion in our scale and reach. Tools of the Mind began in one school district with 15 teachers in 1996. Now, we reach 40,000 children a year in 23 states. Nine out of 10 programs we serve continue to use it for many years after they are trained.

We’ve gotten more sophisticated about measuring the effectiveness of our approach. Data share partnerships allow us to monitor and evaluate our professional development as well as our materials. Teacher professional development workshops and professional learning communities have arisen. Our implementation is getting steadily better. We’re serving families more effectively and leveraging technology more efficiently.

And a growing body of research supports our approach. I like to cite a study titled What Would Batman Do? Self‐Distancing Improves Executive Function in Young Children.” In this study, children were able to demonstrate greater persistence on a task when pretending to be a favorite character than when they weren’t pretending.

Read more about Tools of the Mind in part 2 of this package–an interview with practitioner Grace Wingard.

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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