Is Play the Summer Solution to “Lost Learning”? | Deborah Farmer Kris | 4 Min Read

April 28, 2021

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…

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Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (