Yesterday I took my daughter shopping for a denim skirt. She decided that she wanted to choose some clothing too, and I decided to let her since it is getting very hot here and she doesn’t have that many pairs of shorts. She was a delight for the other shoppers: Her dialogue: “I want choices, Mommy, please. Show me that one [pause for deliberation] No, put it back. Show me the other one. I like the blue one. Put it in the cart. Take it out – I want a different one. I need the red shirt…..” She mixes up some of her colors, but she concentrated on her shopping task close to an hour, and narrowed down her choices to three complete outfits and two extra pairs of shorts. My job was only to hand her different items and to neatly replace everything she rejected (which was a lot). Incidentally, she politely told me I could put back the denim skirt I selected for her -this was not my shopping trip, after all.
When my two-year-old does things like this, I always wonder about the idea that little kids do not have long attention spans and that they are not able to concentrate on one task for two long. This chapter was just what I needed to help solidify my belief that preschool aged children CAN learn to attend to something interesting for a prolonged period (something besides cartoons, which Baby Girl doesn’t watch). It talks about a preschool and kindergarten curriculum called “Tools of the Mind.” I had never heard of it, but it helps small children develop impulse control, and actually helps them develop their brains so they can be more successful when they move onto more complicated learning.
The authors give a lot of information about the Tools of the Mind program, or Tools, for short. I will only talk about a few techniques that I found particularly interesting:
Every morning, the kids are given a directed play assignment and instructed to decide which role they would like to play in the game. The example given in the book is a fire engine scenario, and the roles include firefighters, 911-dispatchers, the family living at the site of the fire (maybe witnesses can be added to include more children). Then the children get together and write a detailed plan for how they will play their various roles, and how their intentional play will proceed. Obviously not all of the children are able to write a detailed script as part of their play plan, but they can write or draw something to help them remember how their role will be played. Then they play. For up to an hour. If a child starts to get off task, the teacher will guide them back to their written play plan. Because the children are actively involved in determining their own roles and how they will be played, they are more intrinsically motivated to participate, and they do not find it difficult to participate in a single activity for a prolonged period of time.
Another interesting thing about a Tools classroom is how they teach the alphabet. They do not post an ordered letter list, choosing instead to group letters by sound and posting each word next to a picture that provides a clue about the sound it makes. The kids work with letter sounds to help them learn to read. They don’t just memorize characters and learn how to write them – they are taught how to think about symbols and concepts and then use what they have learned to read and write.
I am amazed at the positive results these schools are having using what seem to be very unconventional techniques. I’m not going to paraphrase the entire chapter for you, but I will give you a few links for more information (scroll down to the final paragraph of this post). It is shocking how effective Tools is – who wouldn’t want their kid in one of these classrooms?
I have heard that toddlers and preschoolers, especially boys, are really too young to concentrate on one task for a prolonged period, and that it is extremely difficult for them to learn impulse control at so young an age. In the Tools program, kids as young as three, even those with special needs, are able to participate in prolonged play for as long as an hour with getting distracted or disruptive. And they end up doing better in academic subjects, so it seems that prolonged, somewhat self directed play actually helps their brains develop to be more efficient at other tasks.
I want to read more about Montessori, but it seems like Tools might be even better – I know a kindergarten teacher who says that when she has students who have come from Montessori preschools, she has to work very hard to teach them to sit still and follow directions because they are used to having no real structure in school – I think the Tools methods might eliminate this problem, while still allowing children to direct their own activities.
It makes me sad to think that more schools are not using these techniques with small children. It seems that there is enough evidence that it gives kids a much stronger foundation for future learning than other teaching methods. Here in Florida, children go to full-day kindergarten, with no naps and only occasional recess. Teachers are required to hit a ton of benchmarks – kids need to be able to read and write by the end of the school year, including writing out their full name, for example. If Tools can help kids surpass these requirements, while also setting them up to do even better once they move on to elementary school, it’s a shame that more schools have not adopted a similar structure.
After I read this chapter, I spent the better part of an hour trying to see if there are any preschools or kindergartens in San Diego or in Florida that utilize the Tools of the Mind curriculum. I didn’t have any luck, but I did find the website that best explains the program. It includes some ideas for parents who want to use some of the techniques with their children at home – I am definitely going to try them with our kiddo!
Other posts about NurtureShock:
Post 1: NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Post 2: Your Brain is a Muscle
Post 3: Sleeping Makes Kids Smarter
Post 4: Race is a Tricky Topic
Post 5: Tattletails and Liars
Post 6: IQ Tests for Toddlers
Post 7: I Love My Sister
Post 8: Those Wacky Teenagers
Post 9: Learning Through Play
Post 10: Daddy, Hug Mommy Now
Post 11: I am Raising a Little Chatterbox