Dramatic Play and Executive Function Training: An Applied Study

A new educational system called "Tools of the Mind" teaches not facts and figures, but rather focuses on cognitive skills in structured play. In the largest and most compelling study yet, exposure to this curriculum in the classroom drastically improves performance on a variety of psychometric and neuropsychological tests.

Vygotskian theory posits that children need to "learn to learn" - by mastering a set of mental tools which bootstrap their mental abilities, the same way that physical tools can extend physical abilities. The consequent "mental exercise" may strengthen the mind just like physical exercise strengthens the body. Thus, maximally-effective education may be explicitly cognitively-focused - i.e., teaching children to use their minds - rather than focused on skills like word learning and multiplication.

The efficacy of a Vygotskian "Tools of the Mind" educational program, developed in 1993 by Drs. Elena Bodrova & Deborah Leong, has now been conclusively demonstrated in Science (by Adele Diamond et al.) Tools of the Mind is targeted at improving executive function (EF), a construct closely related to "fluid intelligence" and hotly debated in the cognitive neurosciences.

The authors randomly assigned 24 teachers and 147 preschoolers to "Tools of the Mind" or a control curriculum for 1 or 2 years (!), with both groups matched for age, ethnicity, parental education, school resources, teacher training, teacher support and taking place in the same urban, low-income ("regulatory speech," dramatic play, and props for aiding memory and attention.

Children trained with "Tools of the Mind" showed an EF advantage on nearly every measure tested.

In fact, Diamond et al lost much of their sample when, after year 1, "Tools of the Mind" was so clearly superior to the control curriculum that one school stopped the experiment!

Outcomes were assessed with standard EF tasks involving selective attention and cognitive conflict (a Simon-like "Dots" task and a Flanker task). Critically, these tasks were not part of the Tools curriculum itself, so any cognitive advantages must reflect skill transfer - a perennial issue for trainers, where trainees might be merely "learning-to-the-test" rather than generalizing their learning to multiple contexts.

Interestingly, children in the "Tools" group performed better than control children (even controlling for age and gender) only on those aspects of these tasks which taxed executive function - in other words, the easy "congruent" Flanker and Simon trials showed no group differences. In contrast, the "Tools" group showed drastic improvement on the harder "incongruent" Flanker and Simon trials, and improvement in Simon was linearly related to the time spent in the "Tools" program.

Among children in the Tools group, performance on Simon predicted academic measures analyzed by NIEER, including vocabulary (PPVT), social skills (SRSS), language proficiency (IDEA), problem solving (WCJ applied problems section, developed in part by our friend Kevin McGrew), and other tests (though notably not IQ [peg test of WPPSI] or symbol use [WCJ letter-word scores]).

Diamond et al go on to predict that EF-trained children may show lower EF-related disorders later in life (including ADHD and conduct disorder), and that economic achievement gaps may be caused by a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop between initially poor EFs and social perceptions (e.g., as in the Pygmalion effect).

The authors conclude that, in accord with Vygotskian theory, dramatic play is essential (an interesting conclusion, since they didn't show that aspect of the curriculum to be any more important than the others). We'll see if follow-up studies show maintenance of these advantages - there is unfortunately a precedent for lower-income groups to "regress towards their mean" after the conclusion of cognitive interventions, probably due to social stigmas and things like the aforementioned Pygmalion effect.

Is Play "Rational?" Toys and Ambiguous Causal Structure
Developmental Toys
Symbol Use and Play in Humans, Chimps, and Bonobos
Quick coverage at Education Blog
"Tools of the Mind" website.
Learn more about this program here.

Examples of the Activities in Tools of the Mind
Props for Enhancing Memory and Attention
Diamond et al exemplify this class of activities with a structured role-playing game for dyads centered around reading: one child is the reader (and holds a picture of lips as a reminder) while the other is the listener (and holds an ear). Children transition from both wanting to read and neither wanting to listen, to not needing the physical props, to active listening (where the listener asks questions of the reader about the material), and (theoretically) to a final state where active listening becomes an internalized aspect of the reading process.

Speech as regulator
Diamond et al demonstrate this class of activities by way of an example of public speech, although privately directed speech is also emphasized. For example, dyads collaborate in counting objects where only one child counts aloud, and the other serves as a "checker" - theoretically requiring the checker to inhibit the desire to count and to think metacognitively about whether the required answers are correct.

Dramatic Play
Diamond et al. suggest that dramatic play is a critical force in the Vygotskian theory of cognitive development. They describe a form of structured dramatic play where role-playing scenarios are planned and agreed upon in advance. This requires the inhibition of role-inappropriate behaviors, as well as working memory for attending to the current role (despite potential interference from other props/toys or roles).


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Executive function would seem to be as important as "g" for life success, possibly more.

It appears more important to find ways to augment EF in children--using "Tools of the Mind", Montessori, or whatever approach is proven to work--than to determine the extent to which EF is heritable.

We will inadvertently learn more about that question as we institute "tools of the mind" type approaches more broadly in early childhood education.

Right on as usual, Al. Interesting to me that the existing online brain training community does not seem to focus on children, where in all likelihood these efforts can have their greatest impact.

I'd be interested to see mother-preschooler interactions in different strata viewed through this lens. How does this relate to creativity?

I don't think I can answer either question - there's just no data as far as I know. I can reasonably speculate that Vygotskian education (play) would support creativity more than learning facts, but there's no data to support that claim AFAIK.

The education field is just chock-full of people hopefully searching for a magic bullet to eliminate the intellectual achievement disparities between the races, sexes and classes.

This seems to be another and seems to come from the same stable as the magic bullet the Scientologists purvey: The average person uses only 10% of their brain's capacity, but we can show you how to be a whole person.

Each of these claims can easily be shown to be false. The brain is such an expensive organ developmentally and operationally, that any genetic change that allows individuals to develop more cheaply in the womb, or more likely to survive during birth, or better able to get to a reproductive age because they require less calories to operate their brain, simply by reducing their investment in brain volume or complexity (which should to be possible, since by the arguments presented by the Scientologists and these ever hopeful psychologists, people are not using all of their brains and need to be taught to use them better) will give those individuals a reproductive advantage and their lineages will win out and replace the lumbering dinosaurs who build expensive brains only to fail to use all of them.

Moreover, the education collective seems unable to deal with the fact that people are not all exactly the same in respect of their mental endowments. Given that areas like executive function as well as IQ are controlled by hundreds of genes, each of which can have multiple alleles, we are guaranteed to have abilities in these areas that are normally distributed.

When these studies have been replicated many times to eliminate bias, and have followed the subjects over the long term so we can demonstrate that they are nothing more than the same short-term gains we have seen before, then you can tell us you have found a real magic bullet.

By Loki on the run (not verified) on 13 Jan 2008 #permalink


Comparing Vygotsky to L. Ron Hubbard is ridiculous. You should really have read this blog post, or read the link to Vygotsky to see what he really thought, or even looked briefly at the link to the actual study in Science. Put down the straw man and actually read the study. The one-sentence summary of the paper there was: "Cognitive control skills important for success in school and life are amenable to improvement in at-risk preschoolers without costly interventions."

No psychologist in his or her right mind will ever try to teach you to use "more" of your brain -- because you're already using all of your brain. Ever see a PET scan? It's full of activity all over the place.

When you say that "executive function as well as IQ are controlled by hundreds of genes, each of which can have multiple alleles", you seem to be leaving out your earlier-mentioned "intellectual achievement disparities between the races, sexes and classes". Do you agree that (American) society's differential treatment of races, sexes, and classes probably has something to do with their cognitive development? Or are you of the opinion that certain races, sexes, and classes have larger amounts of -innately- less intelligent people?

And on top of that, unless you want to read the actual protocol and outline where possible sources of bias were introduced, I think you should stop maligning good research.

The one thing that you have right, Loki, is that we do need to follow up and replicate this study. *applauds*.

Sigh. Sorry, Chris. I really liked your post, and num-nuts like Loki really burn me up. Keep on bloggin! :)

Hello Chris, this is a great find-thanks! Will blog about it next week.

In terms of kids & online brain training, yes, I am sure we will see more of it. But, in general, kids under 6 are not supposed to spend much time in front of TV or a computer, so in fact board games or curriculum-based approaches may make more sense for pre-schoolers.

Nice post, Chris. Due to reader requests I've been gathering information related to the current tools available for children with ADHD. Tools for the Mind is certainly interesting, and I will definitely look into it further.

Obviously there are differences in racial development. To attribute a significant part of the difference to "endowment" seems premature. Have you considered the differences in Vitamin D synthesis? (African-American in Boston requires two hours of direct sunlight per day to avoid deficiency whereas Caucasian needs 20 minutes). Vitamin D--Dopamine synthesis--IQ. This is in addition to social, nutritional differences and effect on cognition.

Any differences in IQ endowment are probably not as significant as you think.