About 1600 Kiwi preschoolers are about to take part in the world's biggest trial aimed at improving their oral language and self-control - by playing games.
The children, at 140 BestStart childcare centres throughout the country, will play common games and activities such as snap, hop-scotch, leap-frog and musical chairs or "Statues" for half an hour a day.
Otago University researchers hope the games will help them learn key self-control techniques such as concentration or paying attention, waiting for their turn and tolerance of other children.
Otago's famous study of 1000 people born in Dunedin in 1972-73 has found that those who had stronger self-control between the ages of 3 and 11 have had better physical and mental health, higher incomes, fewer addictions and fewer criminal convictions through the rest of their lives.
The new research consortium Emotional Regulation Aotearoa NZ, which includes Otago and BestStart, will try to boost children's oral language skills as well as their self-control in a four-year programme that will be the biggest of its kind in the world.
The 140 BestStart centres that will participate have been chosen at random from BestStart's total of 260 centres.
Those centres will be allocated randomly to four equal groups - one that will do only the games promoting self-control ("Engage"), one that will do only language-enriching activities ("Enrich"), one that will do both, and a control group that will do only BestStart's usual activities.
Parents will be able to choose whether their children take part. Parents who opt in will be asked to fill in six-monthly questionnaires, which BestStart teachers will also answer, to rate the children's language and self-control measures such as how much they "think things out before acting".
BestStart national education leader Clair Edgeler said parents would also be encouraged to play the games with their children at home.
"It's a partnership, it's about working together to support children's development," she said.
She said one of the activities, threading beads of different shapes and colours to make a necklace, teaches children about "regulating your impulsiveness so that you build mastery".
Her interactions with the children also taught them about language.
"There was long and short, and more and less, and all those words came into my language," she said.
One of the children was very shy and her father, who was watching, said that even reaching her hand out to Edgeler for beads was a breakthrough.
"I think about trust - does she have trusting relationships with the people she is interacting with?" Edgeler said.
"So to build trust there were things that I did really intentionally to build trust with her."
The project has an unusual background. It wasn't initiated by either the university or BestStart, but by the "innovation lab" at Dunedin's Methodist Mission Southern, which aims to "develop evidence-based initiatives that improve life course outcomes on a large scale".
Lab head Jimmy McLauchlan found Otago psychologist Dr Dione Healey's research on parents playing games with their children to improve their behaviour, and has worked with her over the past two years to apply it in 22 early childhood centres in Auckland and six in Southland and in 50 mostly low-decile Auckland primary schools.
"It became pretty clear that this could have a big impact if we get it right, so we started thinking, how can we get it in front of as many children as we can?" he said.
BestStart's owners, Chloe and Wayne Wright's Wright Family Foundation, agreed to fund the programme across the BestStart chain.
"Here is an opportunity of a lifetime, really, so let's make the design as high-quality as we possibly can," McLauchlan said.
"We could have researched self-regulation on its own, but the international literature and our own experience have suggested that helping language development at 18 months is probably going to add even more benefit."
So the BestStart centres that do the Enrich language programme, either alone or with the Engage play-based programme, will start Enrich with children aged 18 months and add further Enrich language activities when those children are aged 3 and 4.
The Engage game activities will only be for 3- and 4-year-olds.
McLauchlan defines "self-control", or "self-regulation", as "the ability to manage your emotions, thoughts and behaviours". What most parents call "social skills" is a big part of it, and he says it does not inhibit children's creativity.
"If you look at what it takes to be creative, a productive or creative person, you need a lot of those skills - attention, memory, the ability to regulate your emotions," he said.
"But also, this is why we see this as only part of your day. In the other part of the day there is still plenty of time for self-directed play, free play, creative expression, and that's important as well."
Some games to play
• Beading – simple beading and threading activities help children to develop their attention, persistence and fine motor skills.
• Card memory games – memory match games help children to develop their attention and working memory skills.
• Snap – another fun card game that helps children develop impulse control skills, and manage excitement and other intense emotions.
• Simon Says – also great for supporting attention and impulse control skills.
bull; Yoga exercises – basic yoga exercises help to develop relaxation skills, with lots of fun children's yoga available on YouTube.
• Breathing exercises – there are also great examples of breathing activities on YouTube that help children to manage their emotions.
Source: Jimmy McLauchlan.