Innovation in Action

Learning Through Play

Using games and play coaching to improve executive function

This intervention strategy utilizes games and play coaching to improve executive function skills in children. The Learning Through Play team has tested this intervention in a center-based, trauma-informed early education setting, where it also ran coaching sessions for adult caregivers on how to scaffold play and support children’s skill development. Based on lessons learned in those pilots, the intervention has now been adapted to enhance a home visiting program to increase the impact of supporting the development of children’s executive function skills.

The Problem

Experiencing abuse or neglect can hinder the development of executive function skills, which children need in order to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, and control impulses. This challenge affects the work of many early care and education providers — including Childhaven, a Washington state-based center that serves young children who have been abused or neglected. After assessing the executive function skills of their preschoolers, Childhaven staff found that these children fell below the national average for their age group. As a member of the Learning Through Play project team, Childhaven is collaborating with Frontiers of Innovation to develop a science-based strategy to help their students improve these critical skills.

The Theory of Change

Silvia A. Bunge, Ph.D., explains how learning through play builds executive function skills in children.

The ingredients of play are precisely the ones that fuel learning: in addition to promoting a state of low anxiety, play provides opportunities for novel experiences, active engagement, and learning from peers and adults. This project tests the hypothesis that structured, rule-based play can promote the development of executive function skills. Not only is rule-guided behavior central to the concept of executive function, but structured, pre-defined game rules may also be comforting for children with unpredictable home lives. Read more about how theories of change guide program design and evaluation.

Intervention: The “How”

Childhaven has collaborated with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley to implement a learning-through-play program in classrooms for 4- and 5-year-old children. The program focuses on building the foundations of reasoning and self-regulation skills. It also involves a strategy for coaching the parent and child together in game-playing, which team members have incorporated into several existing parent education programs. Children’s Home Society of Washington joined the Learning Through Play team and, together, they have adapted a game-playing component to enhance their home visiting curriculum with the goal of increasing the program’s impact on supporting children’s executive functioning skills.

Classroom Pilots

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Games are being tested in classrooms of children ages 4 to 5. Photo courtesy of All Our Kin.

Round 1: 10-week intervention with three Childhaven classrooms of children ages 4 to 5. (Another three classrooms were added after a delayed start as a control.) Children played games for 15 minutes a day, for four days a week. They spent two weeks on each game, and the game rules became more difficult over time.

A second round of the intervention also incorporated mindfulness techniques for improving attention and response inhibition.

Round 2: 20-week intervention with five Childhaven classrooms. Children ages 4 to 5 played games for four days per week, alternating between mindfulness time and game time in different amounts.

Coaching for Adult-Child Game-Playing

Play coaching for parents of 1.5- to 5-year-olds. Parent coaching sessions involve three stages and address the following topics:

  1. How to create a framework and expectation for a game/activity
  2. What it means to play collaboratively, and why to emphasize the idea of “personal best” rather than competition
  3. How to scaffold play to support key components of executive function skills

Game-Playing Through Home Visiting

The existing home visiting program at Children’s Home Society consists of two half-hour home visits per week for two 10-month periods following a school year calendar, for a total of 92 visits. The program serves families living below the federal poverty line with an eligible child between the ages of 16 and 30 months of age at the onset of the program. Drawing on lessons learned in previous game-playing pilots, the enhancements will include redesigning supplemental reinforcement materials given to parents, training home visitors in executive function scaffolding skills and in how to demonstrate and reinforce these skills with parents, and in selecting and sequencing program books and toys in order to maximize their effectiveness in supporting the development of executive function skills in participating children.

What We’ve Learned

Members of the team working on Learning Through Play discuss the principle of precision and its influence on their approach. Precision is a guiding principle of Frontiers of Innovation’s Translational Science Model.

Round 1 of the classroom game-playing pilot

After 10 weeks of game playing, the children who demonstrated significant improvements in mental flexibility typically had a higher initial level of sustained attention or were rated as less emotional prior to the intervention. This suggests that strengthening basic emotion regulation skills, such as those targeted by other Frontiers of Innovation interventions, could help develop other executive function abilities.

Round 2 of the classroom game-playing pilot

After 20 weeks of game-playing and mindfulness, the team found that one classroom showed significant improvement in executive function skills, while the other four showed no improvement. When speaking with the teacher of the students who improved, the team discovered some unique things about her classroom and implementation that warrant further exploration:

  • Implemented games 4 days per week instead of 2 days per week (i.e., didn’t alternate between games and mindfulness exercises, unlike the other teachers).
  • Played a single game all week, and then switched to a different game the following week. The other teachers introduced a different game/exercise every single day.
  • Used a chime to signal changes in activity throughout the school day, which incorporated mindfulness into teaching practice.
  • Focused on one mindfulness exercise rather than switching among many.

The second pilot made it very clear that the quality of implementation is key to the effectiveness of an intervention strategy. This finding highlights the importance of not only having effective, innovative programs, but also supporting providers with training and tools for implementation.

Coaching for Adult-Child Game-Playing

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A caregiver and two boys play together at Childhaven. Photo courtesy of Childhaven.

Initial anecdotal evidence was gathered from one participating father who spoke about how playing games with his four-year-old son has improved the child’s memory, reasoning, and speech, and how the experience is strengthening the sense of connection between them: “I thought one day he would just start communicating with me. I didn’t realize it was my job to get him there. Now he has learned to take turns, and he doesn’t have to win every time. He also wants to tell me about his day. I’m much more bonded with him.”