Supporting Self-Regulation Through Play

Kindergartners are in the middle of a cognitive “growth spurt.” They’re starting to make the connections that lay the foundations for reading and math, of course, but they’re also gaining more control over their cognition and behavior. Parents and teachers can see this growth almost day-by-day, as children learn to wait their turn, pause to think, correct their mistakes, follow directions, and settle themselves down after being active or getting excited. These skills are often grouped together under the term self-regulation, because they represent a shift from children depending on adults to help them regulate their thoughts and actions to gradually taking control themselves.

There are a lot of individual differences in how children develop these skills, though, both in terms of timeline and overall level. Some children seem naturally thoughtful and measured from a young age, while others have trouble resisting distractions or remembering instructions. Some of those distractible children will outgrow it in time, while others may always tend to be a bit scattered or impulsive.

A lot of the development of self-regulation seems to unfold automatically through maturation. No special input required! We also have social structures and routines in place that support children’s growing self-regulation – for example, children let each other know when their behavior is out of line, and having to wait for a turn may teach children impulse control. Certain computer games and types of classroom instruction can also support self-regulation. But another, powerful way to support growth is through play.

Source: Lyn Lomasi, CC by 2.0

Pretend Play. Researchers think that pretend play, especially complex pretending that involves elaborate scenarios and multiple children, is uniquely linked to self-regulation. As children pretend, they are required to hold key information in mind (I’m a pirate! We’re on a boat! My best friend is really my sworn enemy!). They have to inhibit the natural impulse to act like themselves so they can act like their character (I’m a cat now, so I say “Meow!” for “yes” and “Meow-meow” for “no!”). And they often engage in coordination and planning, which draws on complex cognitive skills. A busy school day may not allow much time for pretending, but you can encourage children to pretend during recess or provide props for role-playing on a theme during stations. (Learn more about pretend play here.)

Stop-and-Go Games. Remember playing Red Light/Green Light or Mother-May-I as a kid? Researchers increasingly see common playground games as natural avenues for learning self-regulation. Games that require children to inhibit one action in order to do another, or complete a series of increasingly complex steps, draw on children’s cognitive self-regulation and may support development. Some even suggest that songs like “BINGO” or “There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” can support inhibition and memory. To be effective, games have to challenge children and increase in difficulty over time – performing the same task over and over doesn’t lead to growth. (Here are some great playground games if you need inspiration.)

Physical Exercise. We don’t totally understand how or why it works, but research indicates that physical exercise – especially pretty intense exercise – can improve self-regulation. Running around or doing aerobics can help children’s memory, attention, and behavior control. For slightly older children, yoga and mindfulness meditation can also be helpful. (Read more on mindfulness here.)  

We know you have a lot to accomplish with your students every day! Hopefully some of these ideas for playful learning strike a chord and will help you support your students’ development of these important foundational skills.


More questions? VKRP provides support via the online chat feature when you are in the system, via email vkrp@virginia.edu, and via toll free 866-301-8278 ext. 1.