Executive control and play within limits

“…I see that everything in nature arises from the power of free play sloshing against the power of limits.” Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play Improvisation in Life and Art

"The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play."

Arnold Toynbee

Physical enthusiasts continue to grapple with the role of freedom and discipline in fitness and health. Some lean towards highly disciplined "work outs" while others prefer more intuitive "play sessions." As always, advocates for work and play will continue to call each other out, but the conversation may actually be moving to a higher level in pre-school classrooms.

It may seem strange to draw comparisons between physical training and early childhood education, but that is precisely where the future lies. We get a glimpse of this trajectory in Paul Tough’s recent New York Times article: Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?

The central issue of the story is "executive function" in young children. This phrase refers to the general ability to control one's thoughts and behaviors. Specifically, it means the ability to dampen or inhibit impulses coming from the emotional or limbic centers of the brain. Obviously, this is a fundamental skill when attempting to master literacy and scholarship, but it’s also essential to skill development at any age and in any discipline, from chess to sports to business. (See also Daniel Goleman's work on "emotional intelligence.")

The finding reported in this story suggests that fantasy or pretend play, when conducted within limits, leads to the development of self-control. Students who play out fantasy stories and situations learn to master their own brains and channel their copious energies. This practice is described as a blending of play and work.

Successful students in almost any discipline know the paradoxical truth: progress requires a blend of both freedom and discipline. Improvisation is essential; so are limits. Copious research into the nature of talent and skill has proven that immersion, engagement and deliberate, intentional action are essential to moving brains and bodies to higher levels. Recent books such as The Talent Code and Talent is Over-rated make a compelling case for deep and deliberate practice. It’s not grinding labor, nor is it frivolous dabbling: it’s improv within limits.

This is why the martial art model is so famously effective in promoting self-control and regulation, in both children and adults. Martial art is all about participation and engagement. The sensei lays down the limits and enforces them consistently. Practice sessions are full-immersion experiences and are highly physical. Within those limits, play is encouraged. Students learn to control their bodies, their behavior and their own cognition.

Our schools and our gyms could learn a great deal from this kind of practice.