Last updated on Jul 7th, 2020 at 02:33 pm

New Zealand research has found that, by playing simple games, parents can help preschoolers learn the essential skill of self-regulation.

From hyperactivity to aggression, the number of pre-schoolers with behavioural difficulties is on the rise.

While current treatments, including medication, are not effective for all children, research from the University of Otago in New Zealand prescribes tapping into the power of play.

Dr Dione Healey, of the University of Otago’s Department of Psychology, trialled an intervention based on structured play and found it to be effective in managing children with difficult behaviour.

Dr Healy says that children learn self-regulation through play.

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“In structured games, they need to wait their turn, plan their next move, focus on the ball, and manage frustration when things don’t go their way.”

Why children need to develop self-regulation skills

Dr Healy says that self-regulation is a key early developmental skill that predicts a wide array of life outcomes.

“Self-regulation is essential for school readiness and success as you need to be able to sit still, not blurt out answers, persist with tasks, manage frustrations, and give and take in social relationships.

“We also know that early self-regulatory skills are predictive of adult outcomes. The Dunedin longitudinal study has shown that poor self-regulatory skills at age three predict a wide array of adverse adult outcomes including higher rates of incarceration, poorer physical health, higher unemployment rates, and mental health difficulties.

“Therefore if we can find ways to improve self-regulation in pre-schoolers we can alter the life course trajectory for many individuals,” she says.

Structured play for 30 minutes a day

The intervention, known as Enhancing Neurobehavioural Gains with the Aid of Games and Exercise (ENGAGE), involved parents playing a range of simple games with their children in a structured way, for 30 minutes a day. Games can include puzzles, musical statues, hopscotch, blocks and skipping.

Dr Healy says that the results indicate that, when parents spend regular one-on-one time playing with their young children, it has the same positive effect on children’s behaviour as using behaviour management techniques which have a long history of being effective in managing child behaviour.

Affordable fun for the whole family

“With ENGAGE, we now have an additional treatment option for young, at-risk children that is enjoyable, low cost, easily accessible and associated with long-term maintenance of treatment gains. It’s good to have a choice of equally effective options as what works well for one family may not work as well for another,” Dr Healey says.

An example of the programme in action is a game called ‘Animal Speeds’. Children would dance or move around the room – at various speeds based on what animal name was called out. Cheetah mode was fast, giraffe mode was moderate speed, and tortoise mode was really slow.

“Then when they are out and about as a family, parents were able to just say ‘tortoise mode’ when they wanted their child to slow down. They found that this worked really well and helped manage their child’s behaviour very effectively whereas in the past they were constantly telling their child to slow down with no success.”

Story Source: University of Otago via

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