Playground-in-a-box

From David Rockwell’s “Unpacking Imagination,” here’s a proposal for an inexpensive, portable playground kit that lets kids build their own playland:

This design comes from Rockwell’s architecture firm, as he describes:

Although traditional playgrounds can easily cost in the millions to build, boxed imagination playgrounds can be put together for under $10,000. (Land costs not included!) The design below is one that my architecture firm has done in collaboration with the New York City Parks Department and KaBoom, a nonprofit organization. But it needn’t be the only one out there. There are a lot of ways to build a playground— and a lot of communities in need of one. Let a thousand portable playgrounds bloom.

Just another example of how a little bit of structure— not too much— can enable lots of imaginative play.

Other research-based commentary on “tiger parenting”

For what I hope will be my last post on the subject, I wanted to share some gems I’ve found from my online meanderings following link after link on Amy Chua’s views on parenting. These all draw from relevant research to critique specific practices rather than an imprecise “parenting style.”

1. In this edited interview transcript with Scientific American, Temple University developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg reviews the literature on many of the specific practices Chua describes, pointing out both the good and the bad. On his “good” list are high expectations, parental involvement, and positive feedback for genuine accomplishment (but not cultivating false self-esteem). On his “bad” list are excessive punishment, being overly restrictive, and squelching autonomy (characteristics of authoritarian rather than authoritative parenting). He further questions Chua’s views on desirable goals for her children and highlights the value of unstructured play for children’s development. Although he mentions cultural differences in parenting and acknowledges that Americans might misperceive Chinese parenting as being more authoritarian than it really is, he doesn’t analyze cultural influences in much depth here.

2. On Parenting Science, Gwen Dewar (an interdisciplinary social scientist whose background also includes psychology) provides a fuller analysis on both the authoritarian / authoritative parenting style dimension and the cultural differences between Chinese and American parenting. Like Steinberg and others, she too affirms the importance of believing in effort over innate ability, noting that this characterizes Chinese more than American values. Ironically, she includes more detail than Steinberg on his own research, describing the potential for positive peer pressure among Chinese-American youth, whose peers encourage them to achieve rather than rejecting them for geekiness. Most thankfully, she highlights that the positive aspects of traditional Chinese parenting can be separated from undesirable authoritarian practices.

3. Finally, on the NY Times Freakonomics blog, Yale professor of law and economics Ian Ayres (who acknowledges being a friend and colleague of Amy Chua’s) delves into the cognitive benefits of some of these parenting practices, rather than their developmental or cultural consequences. While I’m disappointed that he discusses the benefits of “tiger parenting” without strong caveats against its harms (or an acknowledgment that they can be separated), I particularly appreciated his economic analysis of the attitudes and behaviors that may result.

One virtue Ayres extols is delayed gratification, which he quantifies as “the intertemporal marginal rate of substitution, the willingness to forego current consumption in order to consume more in the future.” It’s another lens on the importance of grit, perseverance, and conscientiousness in enduring challenges while pursuing distant goals. He points out research indicating that these skills may be a stronger predictor of future success than intelligence (as measured by IQ).

(Although Ayres didn’t mention it, this further validates Dweck’s research on the importance of believing that effort matters more than innate ability in determining success.)

He also cites Ericsson’s research on the amount of effort necessary to develop expertise. Despite believing that such discipline is likely to transfer over to other pursuits, he admits that he would probably choose skills with more immediate benefits:

My personal bias is in guiding my children toward endeavors (like learning statistics or US History or corporate finance or Python — all subjects of daddy school) that I think are likely to pay higher direct adult dividends than music or sport skills that atrophy in adulthood.

Inclined though I am to agree with him, I wonder how effective such pursuits are as targets for kids to develop discipline and expertise. Aside from the value of music and sports in themselves, they also carry salient milestones—some culturally derived (such as soccer tournaments and numbered Suzuki-method books), but others perceptually evident—that help children self-assess progress. Computer programming has concrete markers of success in getting a program to produce the desired output, but growth in using analytical tools such as statistics is a bit harder for a youngster to perceive and appreciate.

Oddly, Ayres portrays Chua’s methods as an effective “taking choice off the table” technique for building discipline, despite this crucial difference between his parenting approach and hers: he explicitly involved his children in the initial choice process and explained the pros and cons of their choices, whereas Chua imposed her choices on her children. That initial commitment by the child is key. Without it, the child is simply following rules divorced from meaning. With it, the child learns to connect desire with dedication and goal with process.


Collectively, these articles echo the fundamental values of attributing success to effort, nurturing intrinsic motivation, and setting high expectations that I summarized earlier, while also adding a richer perspective on cultural differences, peer pressure, and delayed gratification in promoting perseverance. While these articles haven’t and won’t receive the audience that brazen storytelling attracts, they give voice to relevant research that too often whispers quietly from the archives.

Supporting imaginative play

I came across this article when looking for a suitable reference in my last post, and I thought it deserved its own summary for all the information it contains. Educators and parents are constantly seeking concrete descriptions and recommendations for how to help their students and children develop, and this article is helpfully specific in describing the characteristics of mature imaginative play and techniques for supporting it. Below I summarize the main points in each category.

Characteristics of mature play (what to look for and encourage):

  • Imaginary situations
    • Assigning new meanings to people and objects
    • Focusing on abstract rather than concrete properties
    • Inventing new uses for familiar objects
    • Describing missing props with words and gestures
  • Multiple roles
    • Assuming multiple roles, including supporting characters
    • Practicing the actions and emotions of the role rather than their own
  • Clearly defined rules
    • Delaying immediate fulfillment of their desires (and thereby developing better self-regulation)
  • Flexible themes
    • Incorporating new roles and ideas from other themes
    • Negotiating plans across themes
  • Language development
    • Us[ing] language to plan the play scenario, negotiate and act out roles, explain “pretend” behaviors to others, regulate rule compliance
    • Modifying speech intonation and register, vocabulary to code-switch between real and pretend speech
  • Length of play
    • Staying with same play theme across multiple sessions over days
    • Creating, reviewing, revising plans
    • Elaborating on imaginary situation, integrating new roles, discovering new uses for props

How to support imaginative play

  • Intervene sometimes:
    • Beware of intervening so much that the play loses its spontaneous, child-initiated character and changes into another adult-directed activity.
    • Do intervene when children’s play remains stereotypical and unexciting day after day to help kids expand the scope of their play.
  • Create imaginary situations:
    • Provide multipurpose props that can stand for many objects (which also promotes cognitive flexibility).
    • Combine multipurpose props with realistic ones to keep play going and then gradually provide more unstructured materials.
    • Show the children different common objects and brainstorm how they can use them in different ways in play.
    • Encourage children to use both gestures and words to describe how they are using the object in a pretend way.
  • Integrate different play themes and roles:
    • Use field trips, literature, and videos to expand children’s repertoire of play themes and roles.
    • Point out the ‘people’ part of each new setting—the many different roles that people have and how the roles relate to one another.
  • Sustain play:
    • Help children plan play in advance by asking them to record their plans by drawing or writing them. This may help stimulate them to create new developments in their play scenario.

(Italicized text represents direct or near-direct quotations; parenthetical comments represent my own added interpretation.)


Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.

Diligence vs. competitiveness

I continue to be disappointed by the mainstream media’s coverage of the “tiger parenting” phenomenon. Although there’s now somewhat more discussion of the specific parenting practices that are good or bad for the child, distinct practices are still getting conflated. One of the latest that I’ve seen claims that “the intense emphasis on hard work comes with a deep, obsessive competitiveness.”

It ain’t necessarily so.

Setting aside my frustration with the media’s reliance on first-person anecdotes rather than research on aggregate populations, I’ll first acknowledge that emphasizing the value of hard work and discipline is indeed very productive. As I wrote in my previous post, it takes about ten years of deliberate practice to attain expertise[1], and those who believe in the value of effort are more likely to invest further effort[2][3] . A recently reported twin study similarly notes that children with greater self-control do better in school and have better health, financial, and social outcomes as adults[4].

But deliberate practice isn’t just rote practice, and worthwhile effort isn’t merely hours of exhaustion. Both require thoughtfulness in figuring out what needs more work and how to tackle it. Likewise, developing self-control requires more than simply being placed in a constraining environment. As I’ve previously noted, the complex and ill-structured world of imaginative play can improve children’s impulse control and self-regulation[5]. Much like the riddle about the town with two barbers, “just because it looks like what you want doesn’t mean it will produce what you want.” Here, it’s not enough just to put children and students through their paces in rigid settings that prevent them from going astray. The theme underlying all of these phenomena is that people need to learn how to decide for themselves how to manage their efforts and how to improve.

So how does this relate to competitiveness? Competition is based on social comparison, or norm-referenced assessment. While it may be inspiring to see the accomplishments of peers as a possibility for oneself, it can also be limiting to endeavor only to best them and not more generally to excel. Even more damaging, people have no control over the performance of their rivals, and chasing this uncontrollable target can foster that worrisome learned helplessness which can dampen enthusiasm, lower self-esteem, and inhibit future effort[6][7]. Instead, criterion-referenced assessment measures performance against fixed goals which can be set up as benchmarks and eventually internalized by the learner. Not only does this provide a clearer way of measuring success than normative comparisons, but it also helps the budding athlete, musician, or student succeed better in the long run.

I fully recognize that Chinese parents can be obsessively competitive about their children’s achievements, even through their self-effacing denials that their children are anything special. And it’s already been documented that the Chinese culture places a high premium on hard work. But these aren’t uniquely Chinese values, and they can be decoupled. The result isn’t some kind of compromise or blend between Chinese and American philosophies, but a selection of those beliefs and practices that have been shown to be productive across cultures.


[1] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[2] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[3] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[4] Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H.L., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B.W., Ross, S., Sears, M.R., Thomson, W.M., & Caspi, A. (in press). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
[5] Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.
[6] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.
[7] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1980). An analysis of learned helplessness: II. The processing of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 940-952.

Play promotes cognitive flexibility

Diamond talks about play promoting cognitive flexibility in “Q&A: The Best Kind of Play for Kids“.

Organizing play for kids has never seemed like more work. But researchers Adele Diamond and Deborah Leong have good news: The best kind of play costs nothing and really only has one main requirement — imagination. Here, they answer your questions about play.

Imaginative play creates structure

On “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills“:

Elaborate toys, busy schedules and the demise of recess have left children with fewer opportunities for imaginative play — and it shows. Researchers say changing the way children play has changed their emotional and cognitive development.

Open-ended, imaginative play helps children develop self-regulatory skills crucial for impulse control, the capacity for delayed gratification, and self-discipline.

The idea of an unstructured environment being better for developing structured thinking reminds me of the riddle about the town with two barbers, one neatly and one sloppily coiffed. Just because it looks like what you want doesn’t mean it will produce what you want.