Building better brains: Making the most of play

Tools Director of Partnership Development Angie Alvis shares a few highlights from the Tools NAEYC 2023 conference session she co-led, diving deeply into play.

The challenge


What we heard from teachers and administration at after implementing Tools at

Building better brains: Making the most of play


No items found.

The process

Committee search to choose the right curriculum

Selection of Tools of the Mind curriculum & professional development

Tools training and implementation for all relevant staff

Teaching and learning review and outcomes

Tools Co-founder Dr. Elena Bodrova and Director of Partnership Development Angie Alvis led a standing-room-only session at NAEYC’s 2023 Annual Conference in Tennessee in November. The session, Building Better Brains: Scaffolding Play to Develop Executive Function, gave its 270 attendees an overview of executive function and self-regulation development and explored how preschool teachers can facilitate brain development through supporting make-believe play.

Many who attended the conference (and some who didn’t get the chance!) reached out to Tools after the fact. One participant wrote to say:

 “Our favorite presentation at NAEYC was the one you gave. We’ve been reflecting on what we learned from you and shared ideas with our teachers at our [recent] staff meeting. Thank you both for sharing your expertise, knowledge, and passion!”
- Preschool Co-Director, Vermont

We sat down with Angie Alvis to dig deeper into some of the topics discussed, including making the most of play. 

Do we need to teach children to play or is it something they do naturally?

Alvis: There is a growing body of research about pretend play that finds that when adults provide scaffolds for children in choosing roles, developing plots, or acting out scenarios with other children during child-led play, children make more noticeable progress in executive function development than they do in adult-led play or free-play without any adult participation. Interestingly, even adult-led play has greater gains than free-play alone. 

In Tools classrooms, teachers walk through building a play scenario with children during activities like Play Practice (PreK) and Group Dramatization (Kindergarten). They facilitate play by modeling, extending, and presenting a problem in a pretend scenario to scaffold children’s play. 

Truly rich play that is inclusive of all peers in the classroom is only possible when each child has a wide knowledge of roles and imaginative situations for the context of play. With an eye on equity, teachers play an important role in building children’s background knowledge, enabling every child to engage in make-believe play. Tools of the Mind teachers support children in building background knowledge by inviting in visitors, showing video, taking the class on theme-related field trips and reading books (especially Tools of the Mind’s Let’s Pretend books). 

What can teachers do to support make-believe play?

Alvis: There are several things teachers can do to support play.

Time. Teachers need to provide a sufficient amount of time for make-believe play. To engage in mature make-believe play, children need at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted play time, and more time is better! 

A recent study on the long-term effects of play suggests that the more time children spend in play in their toddler and preschool years, the better their self-regulation as they grow. Preschool-aged children who spent an hour or more a day engaged in active play demonstrated long-term positive differences in their self-regulation development compared wtih children who spent less time in active play.  

Materials. Children need a variety of materials, including props to support their make-believe play. These can be purchased, found, or best yet, made together in the classroom. 

Background knowledge. Teachers can support children in building background knowledge so that children have a depth of knowledge about the roles and scenarios related to the play theme. 

Scaffolding. Teachers can scaffold make-believe play by 1) modeling a role or play scenario along with the children and 2) providing prompts, asking questions, and helping children extend play scenarios and change roles. 

Recognizing mature play

Bodrova and Alvis emphasized that all play is not equally beneficial to learning and executive function development. 

Here is how mature play differs from immature play and what you can expect to see when watching mature play in action: