The power of play: Meet Tools co-founder Dr. Deborah Leong

Ready to immerse yourself even deeper in the Tools of the Mind approach? Check out the interview with Tools Co-founder Dr. Deborah Leong. You’ll learn even more about the power of make-believe play.

The challenge


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

The power of play: Meet Tools co-founder Dr. Deborah Leong


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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 and Board Member Dr. Deborah Leong sat down recently with Mark Swartz of Early Learning Nation, the independent learning magazine devoted to early learning. The result is part case study part conversation that gives insight into the power of play and tells the story of the roots of Tools from Harvard in the 1980s to Russia in the 1990s to its first classrooms in Denver in 1994 to where it is today. Now Tools reaches almost 50,000 early childhood learners in 23 states. Read on for three of our favorite moments from this enlightening article. 

1. Vygotsky and playing to learn

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian researcher who was the first to study the connection between social connective and cognitive growth. This work is the foundation that Tools is built upon and play is the place where it all happens. According to Dr. Leong, “In Vygotskian research studies, when children were engaged in make-believe play, they were more regulated, able to stand still and ignore distractions more than they could when they were asked to do the same behavior by an adult. We have many examples of children who are unable to wait for a moment in normal classroom activities, but act differently when pretending to be a customer at an ice cream parlor.” This speaks volumes about the power of play: to invite children to “stand a head taller” as Vygotsky would say and perform beyond their current ability level when experiencing engaging, age-appropriate activities. 

2. Is play at risk of extinction? 

While Tools classrooms are full of high-level make-believe play, sadly that is not the norm. As Dr. Leong shares, “Unfortunately, mature make-believe play is disappearing as children spend more and more time in single-age groups missing an opportunity to learn from older “play mentors.” Tools of the Mind creates contexts in which children engage in that kind of play. What’s more, every child in class plays with every other child, creating a community of make-believe players.” Play is alive and well in Tools classrooms. May this be a reminder even in non-Tools schools to allow and support high-level, mixed-age play opportunities. 

3. What does playing to learn look like?

It’s one thing to believe in play. It’s another thing to build an entire curriculum and professional development around it. That’s how Tools empowers teachers to empower children. The result is a kind of play that’s full of so many benefits. As Dr. Leong states, “Make-believe play also hones underlying skills: symbolic thinking, language development, and math and literacy concepts and skills.” You may be reading that thinking, “Wow. But How?” And this is where Dr. Leong brings it to life with just one of countless examples happening in Tools schools across the country. “For example, children pretending to play airport can practice math skills like measuring by figuring out if their 'luggage' fits the criteria of being 'carry-on' or 'check-in.' Children practice literacy skills by making tickets and boarding passes. They read each other’s names and airport signs as they pretend to board the plane and take off.”

This is just a sneak preview of what you’ll see in Early Learning Nation. Check out the full article now.