Sunday, September 30th, 2012
Three big themes in the world of parenting stimulated discussion this past month. Here’s a recap of these along with links to posts that take them on.
(1) The critical role of pretend play – long cherished in the academic literature and embedded in childhood education – was, to a degree, challenged by a somewhat provocative review paper. To some, it seemed like the article’s primary goal was to suggest that pretend play may be overrated as a promoter of cognitive development in general and creativity in particular, and hence should be reconsidered in a school’s curriculum. My take was a little different. I thought the paper did a good job of highlighting the aspects of development that are positively influenced by pretend play – especially social skills – while suggesting that the cognitive aspects may in fact not be the primary benefit:
“Is Pretend Play Overrated?: The Take-Home Messages From The New Provocative Review”
The big thing for me was that, contrary to what you might have read about this paper, there was support for different types of play in the educational (and home) lives of young children (rather than suggesting to eliminate play). To wit, I also discussed a new study which revealed how drawing (particularly copying shapes) in toddlerhood predicts reading achievement in kindergarten even after accounting for traditional indicators of cognitive maturity:
Try This With Your Toddler: How A Particular Type of Drawing Is Associated With Reading Achievement In Kindergarten”
(2) DNA was in the news in a number of ways. There was lots of interest in the recent link made between paternal age and risk for autism in offspring. Much was made of the idea that men, as well as women, have a biological clock. In response, I described what that may mean biologically, and how men (like women) may have to factor in rather inconclusive probabilities when making complex choices about having children at different ages:
Dads, DNA, And Choices
DNA and moms was also a hot topic. A study was characterized in the media as identifying “the mom gene” – implying that a woman either has, or hasn’t, a gene which would make her want to be a mom. I pointed out that genetics doesn’t typically work like this in humans, along with the, um, difficulties in making the jump from a study about female mice who had the function of a gene experimentally disabled to the human female:
Is There A Mom Gene?
(3) Sleep was also a big topic. While you may have read that a new study showed that it’s okay to let your baby “cry-it-out” the actual take-home messages were more fine-grained. In particular, the study was really about 2 types of sleep training methods, their utility in reducing infant sleep problems, and their lack of effects – positive or negative – 5 years later:
That “Cry-It-Out” Study: 5 Important Take-Home Messages You Should Know
I especially encourage you to check this out because we are finally seeing actual scientific studies on sleep training, rather than just debate. And the implications for parents are quite reasonable and, to my way of thinking, very important to know, given that all parents wrestle with figuring out how to get their babies to sleep.
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Sunday, September 9th, 2012
Have you come across the new claim that the effects of pretend play on development have been overstated? Let’s break this down, first from the research perspective, and then from the practical angle.
A recent paper published in the journal Psychological Bulletin conducted a review of existing studies on pretend play and cognitive, social and language development. The authors were especially interested in assessing the evidence for “causal” associations – e.g., does pretend play lead directly to increases in creativity? Without going into the details of how all this is done, let’s cut straight to their conclusions.
They suggest that pretend play does not lead to any gains in creativity, intelligence, or problem solving.
They suggest that pretend play is associated with the development of language, storytelling, social development, and self-regulation.
I don’t find these conclusions to be especially disruptive to the idea that pretend play is an essential part of childhood development. First, note all the important outcomes that are connected with pretend play. This is an impressive list – I’m sure any parent would want to promote these skills in their toddlers. Second, I believe the point of the article is to challenge the idea that pretend play is an essential component for educational programs in order to promote “academic” progress. I don’t have a big problem with this – I’ve always thought of pretend play as being more a part of the social/emotional development spectrum and in particular something that is very interactive in nature. The authors point out that other forms of play are critically important for “academic” development and that these should be emphasized in the classrooms of preschoolers.
So one take-home message to me is that parents and educators may want to be sure that a variety of play types are encouraged in our preschools. Some may be especially effective at promoting problem solving – others might let social skills flourish. Using research methods to refine the need for multiple forms of play is to me a good step.
A second take-home message is that pretend play is a marvelous thing, whether it’s practiced at home or at school. Kids love it! As a parent, some of my favorite memories of my daughter from her toddler years was when she was engaged in pretend play. There was a time when every Saturday morning would be devoted (at her initiative) to her coming up with some type of pretend activity – whether it was serving us in a restaurant, putting on a dance recital, or using stuffed animals to transform a room into an animal shelter. During those years, I never wondered if all that pretend was going to translate into advanced cognitive skills. I took it as a delightful way for her to interact with us and to explore her world. Simply refining – for the educational context – the social nature of pretend play, and the many skills it pulls for, would only argue for the need for incorporating multiple types of play, all of which have a way of coming together to make for a happy and well-rounded child.
Toddler pouring tea for teddy bears via Shutterstock.com
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Tuesday, March 13th, 2012
Of course you read and play with your toddler. But new research suggests that there are specific ways to talk to your toddler - while reading, playing, or, well, just hanging around - that are associated with reading and math achievement in school 10 years later (click this link for a summary of the study provided by Parents News Now). To learn more about this work, I corresponded via e-mail with Dr. Gina A. Cook, a researcher in the Department of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University. Here is Dr. Cook’s take-home message for parents based on the study:
It’s more than just playing with our children – it’s about how we play with them. The kinds of stimulating activities that are related to later academic outcomes include those behaviors that are slightly above a child’s developmental level such as elaborating on the pictures and words in a book instead of just reading the book, asking open-ended questions, and expanding on what the child is saying or doing.
Dr. Cook provided examples of how each of these principles can be applied when reading to your toddler:
ELABORATING: When reading a book with a dog in it to a 2-3 year old child, instead of just reading the words you might want to point to a picture of the dog and talk about the dog such as what color the dog is, what sound the dog makes, that the dog is like your dog : “Look at the brown doggy, it’s a big doggy, it has spots like our doggy. What sound does the doggy make?”
ASKING OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS: When discussing the dog you could ask the child an open-ended question about what the dog is doing: “Where’s the dog going? Why do you like dogs? What did our dog do this morning?”
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EXPANDING: If the child says “doggy” when you turn the page you could say – “Yes, a doggy, the doggy is brown like our doggy.”
Please note that these examples can be applied not just when reading, but also when playing, and really any time you are talking to your child (say if you are out for a walk and you see a dog). This kind of engagement in conversation with your toddler is not only fun for both of you – I would speculate that part of the effect on cognitive development comes directly from the positive affect attached to learning. And do keep in mind that a big reminder from the study is that parents should be sure to give their toddlers plenty of time for pretend play and be active participants – it’s a great opportunity to elaborate, ask open-ended questions, and expand during conversation. And you will see benefits from all this 10 years later in school.
Image of family reading via Shutterstock.com
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