As adults we make choices every day about how our children will spend their time, choices that impact our children’s growth and development. As preschool educators, we’ve been learning more about executive functioning and how to support the development of these crucial brain processes in early childhood. Luckily, even if you haven’t heard of this term, you are probably already doing a lot to help it along in your child.
Executive function includes the following skills:
Attention: Can we focus our attention, sustain it, tune out distractions and shift it when we need to? Are we alert and engaged?
Impulse control: Can we stop ourselves from saying or doing the first thing that comes to mind and instead choose a behavior that will work better for us and those around us?
Working memory: Can we temporarily hold visual and auditory information in our minds so that we can use it to make decisions?
Cognitive flexibility: Can we adapt and change easily when rules or circumstances change?
These skills are vital to our success and happiness.
Yet they are not new skills, and parents have always had fun, playful ways to help children develop executive functioning. Most of these low-tech, play-based games and activities have been around for a long time, and you probably have happy memories of playing some of them yourself. Caregivers have always known they are good for children. Brain research can now tell us why.
“How ‘bout you and you be the baby wolves and I’m the mom wolf who leaves to get food and this is our den?” proposes Ana.
“And how ‘bout a storm comes while the mom’s gone and the baby wolves are alone but they block the door and then the mom comes back,” adds Henry.
Dramatic play is the gold standard when it comes to brain-building play. Children hold complex ideas in their working memory and develop rules that guide their actions. After making the rules, they inhibit actions that don’t fit the “role.” They explore a wide range of emotions (the fear of baby wolves who are alone, the caring of the parent or doctor, the aggression of an attacker or defender) in a safe environment. As children grow older, they develop cognitive flexibility as they learn to play cooperatively – sharing ideas, adapting to the ideas of others and regulating each other’s behavior.
Parents can support high-level imaginary play first by helping children learn about the world: read books, go on day trips, watch educational videos and talk together about what you learn. Parents can provide play props, allow children to make their own props and allow a little mess as tables and couches are covered with sheets to create houses, dens, tents, hospitals or whatever else grabs the child’s interest. Blocks, dolls and animals can be provided to create smaller play scenes.
If you are the child’s playmate, balance sharing your own ideas with eliciting and accepting the child’s ideas into the play.
There’s at least one more important suggestion:
Dramatic play can be especially rich when children are playing outside and have access to loose-part elements, such as leaves, dirt, rocks, sand, grass, branches, trees and water. These same elements are calming to a child’s brain.
Music is complex. When we sing together we are coordinating rhythm and melody, remembering lyrics and attempting to match pitch. When we add movement, we synchronize those actions to the words and music. Echoing clapping rhythms requires focus, impulse control and working memory.
Very young children begin with simple songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Pat-a-Cake.” More complex songs with motions include “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” and chants like “Going on a Bear Hunt.”
Once a song is familiar, as adults we can let the child take the lead, or we can pause before a word or new verse so that the children are encouraged to access their memory rather than simply imitating. Encourage creativity. Making music supports the brain in ways that simply listening to music can’t.
Movement challenges and games
Stop-and-Go games: “Red Light, Green Light” and “Duck, Duck, Goose” require focus and impulse control. “What Time is it, Mr. Fox?” requires the children to focus and use working memory and impulse control to stop at the right number. “Freeze Dance” is also fun. When the music stops, children must freeze (inhibit their action). Variations make the game more complex.
Physical challenges: Obstacle courses challenge children to attempt balancing, skipping, jumping and throwing. Children also enjoy physical challenges like riding a bike, jumping from big rocks at the park, climbing trees and gymnastics. During these activities they have to focus, monitor their safety, adjust their actions, be brave and persist.
Games for quiet times
Puzzles require focus, persistence and the use of working memory to search for pieces that fit together.
Board games and card games require children to inhibit their impulses during turn-taking and play (no cheating). Cooperative board games are especially fun for children who are not yet ready for competition. “Memory” and “Go Fish” are also favorites.
Feely bags: Put several familiar toys or objects into a cloth bag. Ask the child to put a hand into the bag, choose an object, feel it, and guess what it is, all without looking. Feely bags require working memory as well as the ability to connect sensory information from the hand with our mental picture of what the objects looks like. Children must also inhibit the impulse to peek.
As we play with our children, it’s important to remember that each child is unique. Children who are more emotionally reactive, physically active, and open to risk may take longer to develop executive functioning skills than those who are temperamentally more cautious and less active. While all children benefit from the activities above, children with executive function challenges need them even more. We may just have to wait a little longer to see consistent success. Adjusting activities to the child’s skill level and providing encouraging guidance will help all children develop the executive functioning skills they need in order to learn, get along with others and thrive.
Jennifer DeVange is a class assistant at WWU’s AS Child Development Center and used to teach in the Bellingham School District.