Dance, Act, Sing: Using Play-Based Learning to Unlock "Tools of the Mind"

Blog Post
Dec. 22, 2014

As a District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) pre-K teacher from 2010 to 2012, I had the opportunity to teach with Tools of the Mind-- a play-based early childhood curriculum. Every morning my students did an activity where they danced in pairs. They radiated with joy as they let their bodies move without the inhibitions and self-awareness that come with adulthood. Some jumped up and down to the music and others twisted and turned. But the majority of them had their eyes on me as they moved around the room with their partner. When the music stopped, they looked at a poster that I held up and quickly transformed their bodies to mimic the stick figure bodies shown. This was not your typical freeze dance game: children needed a higher-level of self-regulation in order to freeze in the correct position with their partner. While it was tough at the beginning, students got better with practice. Over time, even the most active students were able to freeze in the correct positions and regulate their body movement.

While Tools of the Mind has earned a great deal of coverage, new research paints a promising picture for this early childhood curriculum.

DCPS implemented this new curriculum for the early grades in 2011 with hopes that it would help to produce better regulated and more focused children. This was part of the district’s attempt to create what every school system wants-- a student body with greater potential for long-term success. At the time, less than half of all DCPS students were proficient in reading and math, from 3rd to 12th grades. In order to improve student achievement, DCPS had started expanding pre-K for 3-and 4-year-olds around the district a few years earlier. But the early education curriculum was disjointed, with many schools choosing their own curriculum or even parts of a curriculum. Adopting Tools of the Mind allowed DCPS to continue to expand pre-K access while maintaining a high-quality curriculum in every quadrant of the district. By 2013, Washington, D.C. was ranked number one by NIEER for preschool access and funding. The city was ranked number eight for quality standards.

Despite the growing emphasis on academics in early education, choosing Tools allowed DCPS not only to develop students’ early math, science, and literacy skills, but also build students’ abilities to plan, persist at a challenging task, and work with others through continued play from preschool at age 3 through kindergarten. A large component of the curriculum is intentional play-based activities that have an academic or regulatory element.

As with the enhanced freeze dance game and other similar activities, Tools — based on a Vygotskian framework — aims to to teach children more than facts and skills. Children are also taught cognitive and socioemotional “tools,” which builds a foundation for success later in life. As a Tools teaching manual explains, “When children do not possess these underlying cognitive skills, a teacher must struggle twice as hard to teach those children half as much as when they do have the skills.”

A recent New America report, Skills for Success, explains the need to develop cognitive skills, habits, and mindsets throughout the entirety of the preK-12 education system. While many of these key skills are most easily developed early in a child’s life, they are malleable and can be developed and strengthened later in their schooling.

Developing cognitive and academic skills in children is a challenging balance. Past research on the effectiveness of Tools has been mixed, but a recent study from researchers at New York University shows more promising results, especially for children living in poverty. A study from Vanderbilt University found no significant differences between classrooms using Tools and classrooms using other curricula in the development of self-regulation among pre-K students. Additionally, the Vanderbilt study found no differences in students’ academic performance in literacy, language, or math skills.

This didn’t fit with my experience with Tools, so I was cheered to see a more recent randomized evaluation study from New York University’s Dr. Clancy Blair and Dr. C. Cybele Raver. They found that kindergartners — but not pre-K children — benefited in multiple areas from Tools. They also found that Tools showed its most promising results for kindergarten students in high-poverty schools.

In a phone interview, Kathy Hollowell-Makle, D.C.’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, describes how her kindergarten students at Simon Elementary, a Title I school, have benefited from Tools: “The curriculum teaches children to be self-directed learners and fosters self-regulation. [In a literacy storytelling activity] the captains have to assign roles to the other members of the group. Children not only build critical literacy skills, but also accept roles assigned by regulating their emotion through delayed gratification.” The New York University study mirrors her conclusions, showing significant positive results in working memory, reading, vocabulary, self-regulation, and focused attention.

The researchers account for the differences in pre-K and kindergarten results saying, “Play in kindergarten is distinguished from play in preschool through dramatization, meaning that it is tied to stories and literature rather than grounded in children’s everyday experiences.” In other words, the academic nature of kindergarten play lends itself to more focused learning objectives and goals that teach children difficult academic and cognitive skills in a developmentally-appropriate way.

Although many more studies and analyses are needed to corroborate the positive results of Tools of the Mind for kindergarten and pre-K students, using play- and experience-based lessons to teach both academic and soft-skills, like self-regulation, is a proven best practice in early education. In addition, research has shown that the development of self-regulation at an early age can lead to long-term success. Only time will tell if DCPS students who began Tools at three-years-old will show greater academic and self-regulation skills in the future.