Ideal Learning Providers in Action

Tools of the Mind

Empowering schools with play-based learning.

Play is a significant activity in childhood that is essential to young children’s development. Pretend or “make-believe” play, in particular, is important for building foundational skills, like executive functions and self-regulation. Yet, many early childhood providers struggle to embrace and implement a comprehensive, play-based curriculum, concentrating instead on narrow content skills like letters and numbers. Tools of the Mind (Tools) provides evidence that play-based curricula can help a wide range of children in both public and private early childhood programs to develop integral skills and meet academic goals.

Tools is based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who emphasized the importance of make-believe play (how play allows children to engage in self-regulation), playful learning, and the role of teachers and peers in developing young children’s self-regulation and executive function skills. For Vygotsky, the goal of education is to develop “mental tools” that make learning new things possible—hence the name “Tools of the Mind.” Executive functions are core skills that neuroscientists associate with the development of the prefrontal cortex in the brain and include inhibitory control (the ability to focus attention, inhibit behaviors, and enact appropriate strategies); working memory (the ability to hold more than one piece of information or one strategy in mind); and cognitive flexibility (the ability to flexibly focus on different parts of a task or to change the level of mental focus as a task changes). Executive functions have been shown to have a higher correlation with school achievement than IQ, socioeconomic status, and parent education.

Tools’ activities are multi-level, allowing children with a wide range of abilities to engage together. Teachers learn to scaffold or support children so that each child is challenged at his or her own level of ability. Children who are struggling are not moved on before they are ready, and children who are ready to move on are not held back. Literacy, math, and science activities embed executive function skills in them so that as children learn science facts, for example, they are also practicing self-regulation. Tools builds an inclusive classroom community, engaging children in co-construction with peers. Teaching is based on children’s current learning capacity rather than on general age-level expectations, and this level of personalized guidance and scaffolding, in turn, leads to overall better child outcomes in everything from literacy to self-regulation.

Tools has empowered Christina Seix Academy in Trenton, New Jersey to bring highly developmental early learning to low-income children. Intentional play runs through daily activities: children create scenarios and construct props to enhance their make-believe play. With the current theme of restaurants, children take turns acting out server and customer roles at different play stations in the classroom, which have been turned into an assortment of upscale restaurants and to-go counters. Teachers read children books that build their background knowledge of the various roles and interactions for different themes, which support their make-believe play development. Additionally, children plan their play before they dive into these make-believe worlds—a Tools approach to help children develop their executive functioning and self-regulation skills. At the conclusion of the current theme, the children will take a field trip to a local pizza shop to put their new vocabulary and skills to use.

Christina Seix Academy has had impressive results: 86% of first graders who began at the Academy as three-year-olds are reading at or exceeding grade-level expectations. This is just one of many different schools using the Tools curriculum. Equally effective in rural, urban, public, private, small, and large pre-K and kindergarten classrooms, Tools’ curriculum currently serves over 300,000 children from all backgrounds, including dual-language learners and those with special needs. Children with different abilities engage in the same learning experiences as their peers, and teachers have strategies to address individual needs.

Tools has also recently developed an application—PowerTools—to help kindergarten children learn to read. (The application will eventually be used for children up to third grade.) This online tool exposes early readers to interesting texts that engage their intrinsic motivation and ensures that children are applying successful reading strategies, avoiding repeated errors, and developing executive functions simultaneously. PowerTools is also designed to enable teachers to track how children are learning, identify skills that they are having difficulty with, and analyze these data to determine actionable next steps to support each child. PowerTools applies the same Vygotskian theory that is embedded in Tools’ core approach, which allows for co-construction between children of varying ability levels and avoids the stigma of grouping children. A home version of the PowerTools app allows parents to be a part of their child’s reading instruction, aligning practice at home with learning in school.

Tools counters the popular misconception, debunked by the Trust’s own research on parents’ motivations, that whole-child learning approaches are not sufficiently rigorous and that parents must choose between a program that will prepare children for academic success and one that will prepare them for success in all dimensions of life. Tools helps parents and schools see that a developmental approach produces results in intellectual, social, and emotional development, and illustrates how these areas of development are interconnected and interdependent.

Tools is proof that adopting a play-based curriculum does not sacrifice effectiveness and can enable teachers to meet the needs of all children, including those at risk and with special needs. Children’s play is foundational to a great education and builds a lifelong love of learning.

Photo courtesy of Christina Seix Academy.