Playing for Patience: Using Play to Help Young Children Delay Gratification
“Delay of gratification” may be a mouthful, but researchers emphasize that the ability to wait or work for a reward is one of the most important abilities for children to develop. Delay of gratification is a cousin to concepts like “self-control,” “self-regulation,” and “impulse control” (Hoerger, Quirk, & Weed, 2012). When a child delays gratification in favor of a better, longer-term reward, they must overcome their natural desire for immediate satisfaction. Patience is, after all, a virtue.
Young children have difficulty waiting or working for what they want and projecting long-term consequences; however, this early skill is essential later in life. Studies correlate preschoolers’ inabilities to delay gratification with significantly negative outcomes later in life: jail time, addiction, decreased academic performance, limited social skills, and obesity, to name a few (Beder, 2009; Cheng, Shien, & Chiou, 2012; Schlam et al., 2013; Wulfert, Block, Santa Anna, Rodriguez, & Colman, 2002).
In contrast, preschoolers who make efforts toward delay of gratification showed more positive long-term outcomes. In the classic “Marshmallow Test,” children who were able to wait to eat one marshmallow in favor of eating two later had greater academic success, social skills, health, and overall success later in life (Cheng, Shien, & Chiou, 2012, Diamond & Lee, 2008; Lee et al., 2008; Schlam et al., 2013).
As a teacher and an advocate for children's well-being in the context of our consumer culture, I notice frequent tantrums surrounding preferred items or activities. This behavior is natural for young children to exhibit, but parents and guardians are increasingly likely to give in to their children’s requests. This is partly because parents have become less involved in children’s lives and are more likely to use material goods to show love (Benoit, 2005). Additionally, children have become accustomed to “instant gratification” as a result of technology such as touch screen tablets, phones, and video games (Jukes & Dosaj, 2008; Prensky, 2001). These media not only offer satisfaction at the touch of a button, but also offer children more opportunities for buying things at a younger age without a clear connection to earning and spending money (Beder, 2009). Other contributors to the decreasing ability for children to delay gratification include a decrease in play time and decreased time in nature (Beder, 2009; Kuo & Taylor, 2004).
Alongside parents and families, researchers argue that teachers can have an enormous impact on the development of delay of gratification. There are a number of different strategies, ranging from offering distraction during long waiting periods to practicing martial arts and yoga (Diamond & Lee, 2011; Joseph, 2015).
According to research and surveys of families and educators, play is one of the most important avenues for supporting the development of delay of gratification. In their 2013 article, Bodrova, Germeroth, and Leong (2013) write, “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,” (p. 113). When children are offered opportunities for meaningful play, children naturally practice and build their ability to delay gratification.
Based on my own surveys of families and educators and the literature cited above, a few specific play-based strategies for supporting the development of delay of gratification in preschoolers include:
Offer ample time for meaningful, child-directed play. Simply inviting children to play and following their interests is key to helping children develop their ability to delay gratification. These open-ended experiences are often the most challenging for children when it comes to controlling their impulses (Brock, Rimm-Kaufman, & Wanless, 2014). Help them along by modelling and scaffolding social interactions as needed. Allow at least an hour of play with open-ended materials and props. Encourage children to continue their play themes over multiple days, weeks, or months.
Spend time outside. Teachers in my surveys argued that children are less likely to request instant gratification outside. Scholars agree, saying that children are better able to direct attention after they have been outside (Kuo & Taylor, 2004; Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2002; Wells, 2000). Open-ended time outside also provides children with ample opportunities to test their ideas and bodies, make mistakes, and be resilient. Take your routine outside whenever possible. Most elements of the school day can be held outside.
Role play and make believe. In role play or make believe play, children act ‘above their age’ (thereby controlling their impulses) in order to stay in character and continue playing (Bodrova et al., 2013). Follow children’s interests in creating opportunities for make believe play. Play with them and show them how you can develop a character using your imagination. Model sticking to the “rules” of that character. Hands-on experiences and field trips offer children with real-life ideas to use in their play. Support their learning by providing related props in the classroom.
Engage with board games and puzzles. When children play board games and focus their attention on small motor tasks like puzzles, they must control their impulses and persist in order to experience the reward of finishing and succeeding. Invite older preschoolers to create their own games based on subjects of learning and interest.
Get moving with playful movement and muscle games. When children are invited to use their bodies through games, they work against their impulses in a productive and fun way. Any type of movement can be turned into a game! These types of games are also fun to use while children are waiting. Games like “red light, green light,” “freeze dance,” and “Simon Says” are fun for both circle time and outside time and can be modified depending on the children’s developmental levels. Big body activities such as martial arts, yoga, and other mindful sports are also great tools for developing delay of gratification.
It is likely that you are already using many of these strategies. Recognizing the importance of delay of gratification is an important first step in enhancing children’s development and cultivating their success in the long run.
Author's note: This work comes from my graduate research at Champlain College. For the full works, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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