Last night, my first grader fixed his own dinner.
“Mama, I invented a new recipe. It’s called PBBH: Peanut-butter-banana-honey sandwich! I want to make it all by myself.”
What happened next — as I watched from a few feet away — was a demonstration of how far his executive function skills have come in the last year.
- He developed a plan and organized his materials (focused attention)
- He held the steps in his mind: toast the bread, spread the peanut butter, spread the honey, add the sliced bananas (working memory)
- He switched to a spoon for spreading when the knife was too difficult (flexible thinking)
- He stayed calm and focused when the honey fell to the floor, one of the slices of bread ripped, and the dog came rushing in to “help” (impulse control & task persistence)
But of course, he didn’t think of this activity as a cognitive boot camp. It was independent, self-directed fun!
There’s a lot of handwringing right now about “lost learning” this year because of changes to schooling. But before you buy a mountain of workbooks or sign your kid up for academic remediation on Zoom, think instead about activities that support executive function skills — and for that, very few things are more effective than play.
First, what do we mean by executive function? According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, executive function skills comprise the “biological foundation for school readiness” because they support the process of learning. It’s a lot easier for kids to tackle reading and math when we first help them strengthen their ability to focus, retain two- or three-step directions, look at problems from different angles, regulate their emotions, and persist with a worthwhile activity even when it gets challenging.
The Center on the Developing Child describes the executive function as “the air-traffic control system” of the brain:
Executive function skills help us plan, focus attention, switch gears, and juggle multiple tasks — much like an air traffic control system at a busy airport. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years. Their strength is critical to healthy development throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.The Center on the Developing Child
And as they also remind parents and teachers, “Children aren’t born with these skills — they are born with the potential to develop them.”
That’s really good news.
Here’s more good news: children don’t develop these skills from worksheets. In fact, one of the best ways for young children to build executive function skills is through play and hands-on projects.
So this summer, if you are worried about “lost learning” from this unusual year, do your kids a favor and let them play. Send them outside, pull out the dress-up clothes, decorate cupcakes, tell bedtime stories, and host family game nights. You will not only support their social and emotional development, but you will also be giving them the cognitive building blocks they need to thrive in school.
Here are five playful ways you can help your preschooler and young elementary-age children develop their executive function skills this summer:
- Play Card Games: Simple card games such as Go Fish or Memory ask children to sort and match (key for cognitive flexibility), to retain what cards they need or where a card is on the table (working memory), to take turns, and to handle disappointment when they don’t win (impulse control). As kids get older, games such as UNO or Crazy Eights increase the demands on their working memory and push them to think one or two steps ahead.
- Cook Together: Cooking is a multi-step process that really exercises the working memory as you hold instructions in your mind. Even making a peanut butter sandwich requires planning, retrieving materials, patience, and persistence. This year, my kids decorated each other’s birthday cakes. They drew their plans on paper first and had to get creative not only about materials but about switching gears when plan A (getting a frosting forest to stand up straight) literally flopped. They discovered that cake decorating requires a lot of cognitive flexibility.
- Enjoy Movement Games: Remember “Red Light, Green Light?” This type of game is great for helping kids practice attention and impulse control. Put on some dance music and have them “freeze” when the music stops. Or play “Simon Says,” which requires them to pay attention both to what a person is saying and what a person is doing.
- Listen to Their Stories: Encourage your child to tell you about some aspect of their day — what happened first, next, and last? Ask them to retell the plot of the TV show they just watched or the picture book they read in school. Remind them of something funny that happened last summer and let them tell the “rest of the story.” These conversations help them pull stored information into their working memory and then sequence it for retelling — a surprising sophisticated task.
- Encourage imaginative play: Structured play, such as games, have their place. But nothing beats imaginative play for helping kids use all the executive function skills concurrently! Just watch a couple of four-year-olds playing dress-up. They are developing complex storylines, sequencing their ideas, holding multiple ideas in their heads at once, shifting gears to incorporate new information, problem-solving with peers, and practicing perspective by literally acting out how another person (or unicorn or dinosaur or superhero) might respond. Your job as a parent on this one? Get out of the way!
Fred Rogers was right all along. As he said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”