Developing Self-Regulated Learners Through Play

By Adrienne Lomangino, Head Teacher

During a session at Bing Nursery School, children have many opportunities to decide what they want to do and how they want to do it. The open-ended nature of the play materials encourages children to form their own goals about how to use them, or to plan. In other words, Bing classrooms encourage a skill that is key to academic success: a competency known by educators as self-regulation.

But what is self-regulated learning, and what does it look like in play? Although definitions of self-regulated learning vary, they all emphasize the active role that students take in initiating and guiding their learning. Educational researchers describe self-regulation as the capacity to plan, guide and monitor one’s learning behavior and adapt to varying circumstances.1 Self-regulated learners take an active role in directing their thinking and behavior.2, 3 Although self-regulation is a complex set of competencies, upon closer examination, young children reveal that they are capable of beginning the path toward becoming a self-regulated learner.

When children get to formulate their own goals, as they do at Bing, they are intrinsically motivated. This internal investment in their activity encourages children’s attention to their progress, known as “monitoring.” Like most skills, monitoring of one’s progress toward goals develops with experience and interactive support. While children will sometimes independently keep track of how their endeavors are progressing, the teachers play a supportive role in prompting children to monitor their activity. Simple questions such as, “How is that working out?” encourage children to thoughtfully attend to their process, and the flexibility in their choice of activities allows them to determine when they are done. They are able to evaluate whether or not they have met their goals.

If an endeavor is not turning out as a child envisioned, the extended time for play provides ample opportunity to try another approach. While sometimes children will independently adopt a new strategy, in other situations they may need a teacher or peer to help think of another way.

Detailed examination of children’s play at Bing reveals the active efforts they make to plan, guide and monitor their learning. The following two descriptions of children at play in East PM highlight their self-regulatory activity.

In the first scenario, Alex sits alone at the art table with a paper in front of him. To his left rests an informational book about chickens. The book is opened to a page with a large photo of a hen, a nest of eggs and a number of chicks. Two yellow feathers lay to the left of the book. Alex makes marks on his paper, then says, “Oh, man.” (Monitoring: Alex detects an error in his effort toward his goals. He then decides how to proceed to address the problem.) He flips the paper over, sliding the yellow feathers out of the way. His gaze shifts quickly back to illustration in the book, then returns to the paper as he begins to draw again. (Alex strategically uses a book as a model.) While drawing, Alex explains to me, “I did the red chicken already. And now I’m gonna do the yellow chicken.” (Planning: Alex identifies his self-determined goal.) He turns back to the paper as if to continue drawing, then says, “I get two yellow feathers.” (Metacognitive knowledge: Alex comments on how he has planned to recreate the yellow chicken, demonstrating explicit awareness of his own strategies.) After a few minutes of work, Alex definitively closes the book and shows his paper to a teacher, indicating that he is finished and satisfied with how he has met his goals.

In the final scenario, Ella stands in front of the easel next to the door with her back to the block area. Evan paints at the easel on her left.  She looks at the paper while speaking: “I’ll show you a picture of a volcano.” (Planning: Ella states her clear intention for her use of the materials.) A triangle shape is on the paper, covering the bottom 2/3 of the space. Starting at the top point, she paints down in a wavy orange line almost bisecting the triangle shape. About five inches from the bottom, the line fades as the brush runs out of paint. Ella finishes the line but then lifts the brush back to the point where it started fading, painting over it with the same brush in a straighter diagonal line. (Monitoring: This effort to go back over her incomplete line demonstrates that she is monitoring the quality of her work and actively addressing problems). She dips the brush back into the orange paint cup (which has been in her left hand), swirling it slightly. With more paint on the brush she returns it to the point two inches from the bottom and retraces the line for the third time. (Again, she attends to whether her work is meeting her expectations and corrects herself). While painting, she darts a glance toward Evan painting at the easel next to her, then returns her attention to her own easel. (Motivational control: She does not allow her attention to get diverted by surrounding distractions.) As she continues to add details to the painting, she nears the end of her work, holding a brush with black paint. Mouth pursed, she makes rapid circular strokes, starting at the top point of the orange “volcano” and moving upward to the right. “That is a volcano exploding.” (Evaluation: Here she expresses her satisfaction with her creation in relation to her original goal.)

Within just a few minutes of play, engaged in self-chosen activities that may at first appear mundane, these children revealed multiple efforts to guide their learning activity. Their intentional approach to their work supports claims that child-initiated learning experiences encourage them to develop competence at thinking independently and directing their learning processes.

Within our society of rapidly expanding knowledge production, individuals need the capacity to flexibly solve complex problems and guide their continued acquisition of knowledge and skills. In order to draw upon prior experiences, knowledge and strategies as flexible problem solvers, students must be able to access these intellectual resources, recognize when they are pertinent, and modify their activity as needed. These qualities are embodied in contemporary descriptions of self-regulated learners.4,5

1. Diaz, R., Neal, C., & Amaya-Williams, M. (1990). The social origins of self-regulation. In L. Moll (Ed.), Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology (pp.127-154). New York: Cambridge University Press.

2. Paris, S. G. & Winograd, P. (1990). How metacognition can promote academic learning and instruction. In B. Jones & L. Idol, Dimensions of thinking and cognitive instruction. Hillsdalle, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

3. Pintrich, P. R., Wolters, C. A., & Baxter, G. P. (September, 1995). Assessing metacognition and self-regulated learning. Paper presented at the 10th Buros-Nebraska Symposium on Measurement and Testing. Lincoln, Nebraska.

4. Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Prentice, K., Burch, M., Hamlett, C. L., Owen, R. & Schroeter, K. (2000). Enhancing third-grade students’ mathematical problem solving with self-regulated learning strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(2), 306-315.

5. Zimmerman, B. J. (1998). Developing self-fulfilling cycles of academic regulation: An analysis of exemplary instructional models. In D. Schunk & B. Zimmerman (Eds.), Self-regulated learning: From teaching to self-reflective practice. New York: Guilford Press.