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Preschool Game Predicts Academic Success, Researchers Say

When tweaked, the classic preschool game Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes can help predict a child's academic ability in school—and perhaps success in life, an Oregon researcher says.

Young children who can play Megan McClelland's version of the game have greater executive functioning such as self-regulation, a skill necessary to pay attention in class, mind a teacher, or persist in a specific activity, said the associate professor of healthy children and families at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

The game requires players to do the opposite of her directive, she said. So, if McClelland calls out "touch your head," the child must touch his or her toes.

"You have to pay attention to the rules, remember them and demonstrate self-control before doing something different," she said. "Then we add in new rules ... which increases cognitive complexity."

The game is harder than it seems, she said.

"I teach undergrads and just for fun we tried it," McClelland said. "Not all of them could do it."

But data derived from such playground games is such a valuable tool that the U.S. Department of Education awarded McClelland and her colleagues a $1.6 million grant to track outcomes from 400 preschoolers who've played the games as they transition to kindergarten. The idea is to find out who has the skills—and who doesn't—for success, she said. Moreover, McClelland and her colleagues believe such skills can be taught. 

The research is being done at a time when the Common Core State Standards are being phased in and attention is turned towards academics, she said.

"People are sort of jumping to academics without realizing they need to lay the foundation first for how you learn skills," she said.

To read McClelland's published work on similar topics, click here.

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