For those that have never heard of it, The Marshmallow Test was a study led by Dr. Walter Mischel at the Bing Nursery School in Stanford during the 1960s and 1970s. In a nutshell, the test involved offering pre-schoolers their treat of choice with the caveat that they could have one treat right away or two if they waited for the researcher to return. The short video below replicates the original experiment along with some insightful commentary.

Dr. Mischel’s assertion is that “self-control ability early in life is immensely important for how the rest of life plays out.” Basically, the longer a child was able to wait for the treat the more “successful” they would become, with success being measured in terms of self-control, higher SAT scores, less drug use, a higher level of educational attainment, etc. etc. Dr. Mischel is quick to clarify that correlation does not equal causation. In other words, just because a child is not able to wait does not mean they will not be successful.

“The child’s experiences in the first half dozen years of life become roots for the ability to regulate impulses, exercise self-restraint, control the expression of emotions, and develop empathy, mindfulness, and conscience.” (Mischel, 2013, pp. 57)

These experiences form the basis of a child’s Executive Function (EF) – a cognitive set of skills that enables them to inhibit impulses in pursuit of a goal.

“Because EF requires us to exert cognitive control over our thoughts and feelings, it is easy to think that it is the antithesis of creative and imaginative processes. But in fact, it appears to be an essential ingredient for the development of imagination and creative activities, including pretend play early in life. EF allows us to get beyond the immediate situation and the here and now, to think and fantasize “outside the box” or imagine the impossible.” (Mischel, 2013, pp. 110)

In our Early Childhood setting at ICS Addis we are fortunate to have a schedule that allows us the flexibility to allocate the majority of our schedule towards free play. I wouldn’t want it any other way. A common misconception is that free play equals an unstructured free for all. On the contrary, our students are guided through play by following a sequential cognitive process we have adopted from High Scope called Plan-Do-Review. Basically this involves a child’s “plan”, deciding where they want to play, how, and with what materials. During the “do” phase children execute their plan in play and during the “review” the children discuss what happened, any difficulties they encountered and/or what they would do differently next time. In other words, we are using play as a means for students to exert cognitive control over their thoughts – helping them develop their Executive Function skills!

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And the key word here is skills! I often get asked what I expect my students to be able to do by the end of their year in Early Childhood (Pre-School). My answer is always the same fuzzy term I refer to as “Kindergarten readiness.” Basically, helping my students develop Executive Function skills so that they are able to be successful learners in the much more academic and structured environment of Kindergarten. The simple things like being able to sit with purpose, control their impulses, communicate their feelings, all those intangibles that we all too often take for granted. Sure knowing the “academics” is good – meaning being able to count up to X or recognize a certain Y number of letters … but what good are these hard academic skills if a child doesn’t have the capacity to sit still for more than 2 minutes or lashes out in frustration when put in a position to have to share? I find that many of my students leave my class “kindergarten ready” (aka with EF skills), and I credit this success to their ability of exploring the world around them through play.

The word play originates from the Old English word plegian which meant to exercise. Google Why is Play Important and you will quickly find that research and popular opinion is firmly in the let our children play camp. All too often though, once past Early Childhood or preschool the “academics” takes over. The new buzz words in education (from elementary school to high school) are authentic learning, 20% time, genius hour, passion based learning, inquiry. Really these are all synonyms for play – basically exercising the mind! I encourage you to give it a try as well and let all your children, irrespective of age, find enough time in their busy “academic” schedules to discover their world anew through play.

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