By Rebecca Mitchell


Self-regulation.  Basically, it’s a fancy word for self-control. When I think of self-regulation, I immediately think of it in terms of behavior, but it has to do with much, much more. Although behavior is included, self-regulation is not limited to staying in one’s seat or raising one’s hand and waiting to speak. Self-regulation includes clapping instead of saying “B” when singing “B-I-N-G-O”, following directions, and even the ability to communicate needs and wants through language skills rather than screaming and crying.

You may know some children (and adults) who are lacking in self-regulation! It is a rampant problem in today’s society and greatly affects children’s school experiences.  If you walk into a school setting, you will likely see students unable to focus, unable to restrain impulses in order to follow directions, and maybe even falling out of their chairs! You may have noticed these same problems at home. What on earth is causing this?

Study after study reveals that a lack of active outdoor play is the problem. According to a 2014 study by Becker, McClelland, Loprinzi, & Trost, “…children’s exposure to recess, especially active play, increased their levels of self-regulation, which, in turn, led to better math and reading achievement, suggesting relationships among recess, self-regulation, and achievement.”

As children engage in play, especially imaginative play, they must self-regulate to assume a role. If they are pretending to be a doctor, they must resist the urge to do things inconsistent with the role. In Play and Self-Regulation, an article by Delena Bodrova, Carrie Germeroth, and Deborath J. Leong (2013), they quote Lev Vygotsky as saying, “For preschoolers, play becomes the first activity in which children are driven not by the need for instant gratification – prevalent at this age – but instead by the need to suppress their immediate impulses…At every step the child is faced with a conflict between the rule of the game and what he would do if he could suddenly act spontaneously. In the game he acts counter to what he wants…[achieving] the maximum display of willpower” (p.113).

If you are like me, you have spent countless hours watching your child engage in imaginary play. When my kids were little, we would play imaginary games in the front yard where they would dictate what character I would be and what I was to be doing. If I did something out of line with that character, I was immediately scolded. As I watched them play, and joined in when they requested, I had no idea of the skills they were learning. 

Many of us are unintentionally depriving children of the opportunity to play and engage in self-regulation. We may think that giving them a tablet or game system allows them to engage in imaginative play but the opposite is true. They are engaging in someone else’s imaginative play — not creating their own.  As Bodrova, Germeroth, and Leong point out, “In a worrisome trend, many signs indicate that today’s make-believe play does not simply differ in content from play of the past but that it has declined in both quality and quantity. We find this qualitative and quantitative decline of play even more troubling when viewed in light of declining self-regulation in young children that puts them at risk of later cognitive and social-emotional problems” (2013, p.118). 

As we follow God’s leading and the research, we look forward to helping our students grow in this vital area.

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