Tools of the Mind – Creating a Play Plan

Tools of the Mind helps a child develop “executive function” in the prefrontal cortex. It helps a child plan, predict, control impulses, persist through trouble, and orchestrate thoughts to fulfill a goal. Children learn how to avoid distraction, and become self-organised and self-directed.

I first heard about Tools of the Mind when I read the book “Nurture Shock“.  I was so impressed with the benefits of the program, I went in search for more information on how to implement it, since we didn’t have any Tools of the Mind schools, and managed to find a book by Elena Bodrova.  While the book had good information in it, I found it difficult to implement the program with Gavin.

One of the features of the program involves getting children to create a “play plan” before they engage in any play activities.  The play plan is essentially like a daily schedule an adult might create to organise her day except that it involves the child writing and drawing a series of activities he plans to do during his play time.  At the time I read the book, Gavin could barely draw, let alone write so I couldn’t see how he could create a play plan before play time.  That was before I had seen an example of a play plan and understood what a play plan entailed.

Recently, my BFF sent me a copy of a Tools of the Mind study which contained examples of play plans drawn by children. Here is one example:

As you can see, the concept of the play plan is actually pretty basic. You don’t even have to have a list of activities that your child is going to do. It can be a single event in her schedule, such as “I am going to watch the pumpkins grow” as in the example above. If she cannot write out what it is she intends to do, the teacher will write it out for her. In other examples of play plans, the children attempt to write out what they intend to do and the teacher will make the necessary corrections.

The idea of the play plan is merely to get a child to think ahead of time and make a plan about it. The action of drawing and writing it down helps to cement in your child’s mind the decision to do that particular activity. We all know that children shift focus very easily. First he wants to read a book, if you don’t get to the book in five minutes – or less – he will want to play trains. The play plan is to help him stay focused.

What if your child can’t draw? That’s the benefit of homeschooling and having one parent to one child – you can talk to your child about what he wants to do and draw a picture together (you can get your child to colour in the picture). Alternatively, although I think it might be less effective, you can talk it through with your child. The purists might frown on this adaptation of the play plan but it’s what I do with Gavin in the car on the way home from school.

Me: what would you like to do when we get home?
Gavin: read.
Me: how many books shall we read?
Gavin: five books.
Me: which books do you want to read?
Gavin: Thomas.
Me: which Thomas books are you going to choose?

The benefit of talking it through with your child (which I believe is something you should do even if you’re going to draw the play plan) is that you can help to direct your child. For instance, when I want Gavin to broaden his reading, I might direct the conversation as follows:

Me: which books do you want to read?
Gavin: Thomas.
Me: Okay, that’s one book. What else would you like to read – Dr Seuss?

Yet another method of doing the play plan which we borrowed from “Special Agent Oso” on PlayHouse Disney is to do the 3 Special Steps. If you’ve never watched this program, let me give you a brief background. The show begins with a special assignment given to Agent Oso (who is a bear). The assignment involves Oso helping a child learn to do something, for instance, fix a jigsaw puzzle. Oso will have trouble doing the assignment and there will be help along the way. Oso will be given instructions in the form of 3 special steps that he has to follow in order to complete the assignment. In the example of the jigsaw puzzle, it was:

Step 1: Find the corners.
Step 2: Complete the border.
Step 3: Fill in the missing center pieces.

In Gavin’s case, we will have ‘x’ special steps to get through the rest of the day. For instance:

Step 1: Eat lunch.
Step 2: Take a shower.
Step 3: Play trains.
Step 4: Ride the bike.
Step 5: Eat dinner.
Step 6: Shower and change into pajamas.
Step 7: Read a story.
Step 8: Lights out.
Step 9: Sleep.

As I said, I don’t know if this is as effective as drawing out a play plan but it’s what I’ve been doing with Gavin for quite a while and I reckon his executive function is developing quite well. Then again, he’s still only my study of one.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Tools of the Mind – Creating a Play Plan

  1. I have been doing something similar with LM, except that rather than getting her to write or to draw her preferred activities, I have taken pictures of them and let her choose. I also prepared a colourful board with velcro dots where she sticks them in the order she want to get them done, leaving one last dot for the picture of a small prize. This is normally referred to as “visual schedule” and works very well with visual learners. So far she has been planning out her play time, but this would work with planning out her whole day too. Once her drawing and writing skills are stronger, I suppose we could try out Bodrova’s method you described.


  2. That’s an excellent idea! Great for the younger kids who can’t write or draw! Thanks for sharing. I’ll try it with my younger boy when he’s a bit older.


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