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Tools of the Mind Preschool Curriculum

Tools of the MindWhen we first heard about Tools of the Mind, the reports about the program for early childhood education were very positive and extremely encouraging. The concept of providing young children with mind tools that help them control their emotions and impulses made a lot of sense especially in an age that encourages the development of short attention spans and impulsive behaviours with information and sensory overload.

Back in the day when we were kids, we played with children from a range of ages. Younger children learned the rules of the games from the older kids. When the younger children became the older kids, they passed their knowledge to the new young children. Children played together to have fun. If you didn’t learn how to get along with the other kids, you were on your own.

Today’s children are kept largely in groups of a similar age – especially with our nuclear families, childcare and preschools. Even when the children play, a lot of activities can be done in isolation and with minimal interaction with other children.

The Tools of the Mind program was designed to address these modern day problems of childhood…

What is Tools of the Mind?

Tools of the Mind is a research-based, Early Childhood Education Program that is based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Early research indicated that the Tools program was beneficial for helping children:

  • gain control of their social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors by learning how to use a variety of mental tools;
  • practice self-regulated learning throughout the day by engaging in a variety of specifically designed, developmentally appropriate self-regulation activities;
  • learn to regulate their own behaviors, as well as the behaviors of their friends, as they enact increasingly more complex scenarios in their imaginary play in preschool and in learning activities in kindergarten.

The Philosophy

Vygotsky believed that play was a very important medium for children to learn, however, the play that Vygotsky referred to was very specific – make-believe play. The goal of Tools of the Mind is to help young children shift their play from immature play to mature play.

Examples of Immature Play:

  • repeating the same actions over and over
  • using objects realistically because they are unable to invent props
  • no roles or primitive roles based on the action of the toy
  • use very little language to create their play scenario and their role
  • very little interaction with other children
  • unable to describe what they will play in advance
  • fighting and arguing over props and roles
  • sustained play is brief – 5-10 minutes

Examples of Mature Play:

  • able to create a pretend scenario and act out scenes from the scenario
  • invent props to fit their roles (e.g. if they don’t have a telephone, a block can substitute, or even an invisible phone)
  • roles have specific characteristics and rules for action; they can change roles and alter actions to fit the new role
  • engage in long dialogues about the play scenario; language is used extensively – they can imitate the speech of the characters they play
  • there are multiple roles and themes; new ideas are added and can be introduced
  • able to discuss their roles and actions prior to play or when the scenario is about to change
  • solve disputes and invent props rather than fighting over them
  • immersion in play can run the course of days as they continue to explore and expand the scenario

More about it here:

Tools of the Mind Curriculum

The following are some of the activities that the children do in a Tools Classroom:

  • Play Plans – an instructional strategy used to promote the development of self-regulation. Children plan their play every day, right before they start playing in the centers. A Play Plan usually describes the role and the actions a child will engage in during the first few minutes of play. This initial plan helps children to act purposefully.
  • Make Believe Play
  • Cooperative Paired Learning
  • Scaffolded Writing – children first plan what they want to write, draw it, and then write it, with the help of multiple mediators, such as lines drawn to represent words. The form that the writing takes (scribbles, lines, initial letter sounds, estimated/invented spelling, word patterns) depends on where children are in their writing development.

There is also information for parents on how they can help support their children develop mind tools at home.

How Effective is Tools of the Mind?

Early research was promising…

Educational Effects of the Tools of the Mind Curriculum: A Randomized Trial

“The Tools curriculum was found to improve classroom quality and children’s executive function as indicated by lower scores on a problem behavior scale.”


Unfortunately, the results did not hold up in a later study…

Experimental Evaluation of the Tools of the Mind Preschool Curriculum

“Students in Tools classrooms performed about equally well on all outcome variables, including executive function measures, after receiving a year of the curriculum as students who received the usual preschool curriculum.”

What do we make of this conflicting result? Daniel Willingham suggests that “It’s too early to conclude that Tools of the Mind simply doesn’t work as intended. It could be that there are as-yet unidentified differences among kids such that it’s effective for some but not others. It may also be that the curriculum is more difficult to implement correctly than would first appear to be the case. Perhaps the teachers in the initial studies had more thorough training.”

I’ve also been wondering about these results and I wonder if perhaps it really is too early to discuss the merits of the program. Is it possible that we will see long term results like the Abecedarian Project where the later benefits of the program are much greater than the initial study results? I wonder…

More about Tools of the Mind:

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.

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