Executive functions provide the necessary base for learning and development.
They are the brain functions that enable us to focus, plan and organize our behavior.
Because of them, we are able to reflect upon things we do, learn from experience, embrace different perspectives, and pursue and achieve our goals.
Executive functions are important for kids to handle many different situations in life: with family and friends, on a playground or in school.
They are considered to be the basis of what we consider to be creative thinking, innovativeness, good organization and time management, growth or goal-oriented mindset, emotional intelligence and effective communication.
Anybody would agree that these are the necessary skills to succeed in the 21st century!
By helping your child develop them, you are helping them succeed in life.
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Executive functions take place in the prefrontal cortex.
This part of the brain is the last one to develop. It is responsible for the exchange of information across high-level areas of the brain.
It allows us to use our accumulated knowledge to find solutions for situations as they arise, to plan behavior and act towards a desired goal.
To form these connections, the prefrontal cortex needs to experience challenges, to learn and grow. Because of this, we need to continuously expose our kids to various growth-promoting experiences.
Providing these experiences is especially important in the first years of our lives due to increased brain plasticity.
Well, executive function skills cover three important sets of functions. Each of these sets of functions plays a crucial role in our learning experiences. They are:
Here are some of the activities that can help you facilitate the development of executive functions with your children. Use them creatively!
There are many different activities that can facilitate the development of executive functions early in your child’s development.
Our parents and grandparents might have been using these for the purpose of just playing with us without realizing how impactful they are for our early abilities to focus and engage in the activity.
While you are clapping hands to a rhythm, your child learns how to set the pace for clapping along with your singing or talking. At the very beginning, they will either not clap or clap constantly.
This is where they are starting to learn a skill that helps us control their impulses to do something right away. At the same time, they are learning how to stay concentrated on what you are doing with them.
In the beginning, we are the ones navigating our children’s control system. As they grow, they learn how to coordinate their clapping.
This is one of the basic games you can play early on that is useful for your child’s working memory.
They need to remember who is hiding (to keep both you and the game long enough in their working memory!) If you try hiding and you don’t reappear shortly after you’re gone, most babies will get distracted by something else or start crying out of frustration.
They need to develop the ability to stay focused on your hiding long enough to wait for you to reappear or to go look for you.
This game also helps your baby learn to anticipate where you are and the moment in which you will reveal yourself. With that, your child is learning how to manage how to control their frustration, sustain their reaction and wait for you.
The same as in a peek-a-boo game, you can help your child improve working memory, attention span and self-control by hiding the toys and play the game of looking for them.
At first, you’ll be hiding them under the cloth or behind their back or under the chair – places where they can easily find them.
Where is the ball? Where did it go?
Is it here? No! And Here? Oh, yes – here is the ball!
Playing with them and engaging them verbally helps them with speech development too.
You are probably familiar with songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Singing songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider is an excellent example of activity through which you work on concentration, working memory, self-regulation and speech development.
Sit behind your child and use their hands to imitate the movement. They need your assistance to get used to the activity.
Imitation games of any sort are beneficial for different reasons.
These games can include putting things in a box, one at a time. If the child is rushing and throwing in two at a time, ask them to hold on and wait. Indicate that that’s not how the game works.
These games can also be verbal. Singing verses together and having them shout “la la la” or “hey” when it’s time for that part of the song helps them also with auditory attention and memory.
In the first years of our lives, a lot of learning is happening non-verbally. By allowing your child to touch and feel, to examine colors, shapes and texture, you are nurturing their curiosity about the world.
Try to use words to attach verbal sense to what they are touching: “Oh, that is soft!” This way you are also helping them develop speech by learning new words and their meanings through practical, sensory experience (which makes it easier for them to remember!)
The period between 18 and 36 months is quite turbulent in terms of changes going on with your child. They seem to be growing and maturing faster than ever!
They become more physically active and their speech develops along with their motor skills. In this period, they need as many growth-promoting activities that will challenge them and help them learn as possible.
Here are some of them:
Board games are fun for the whole family!
When participating in playing a board game with others, a child needs to pay close attention to the rules of the game, wait their turn, accept when they are losing but also try hard to win. A child also gets to see how others are behaving in a game, which gives you a chance to model desired behaviors.
Board games continue to be useful for older ages too. Many board games require planning, prioritizing, and forming a winning strategy. Continue to use them through your child’s development.
Check out the selection of games by Understood.org for inspiration!
Coloring and drawing are activities done on paper, which require a child to sit down and concentrate on the activity in front of them.
Coloring books or drawing worksheets for toddlers (that can be found online for free!) are not only fun for them and good for practicing focus and impulse-control, but are also great for practicing fine motor skills.
Whenever you can get your child involved in doing something around the house, do not hesitate to do so!
Through these activities, they are learning to listen to instructions, remember them and organize their action to do what they are asked to. It is good for their attention, working memory and self-regulation skills.
Any kind of sorting chore can be extremely useful for developing executive functions. Sorting out laundry can be an activity in which they can participate with you.
“Put all of the socks on that side and then try to match them.”
You might end up with pairs of different socks, but, your child is learning a lot!
Songs are great for practicing working memory.
Singing them requires a child to hold words of a song in their working memory and organize their movement at the same time. Here are some examples of songs: The Hokey Pokey, Teddy bear, Head, shoulders, Knees and Toes.
These songs are also useful in developing speech, as they introduce new words and meanings.
It’s always more fun to do them with your child, so feel ready to awaken your playfulness and join the dance!
Imaginary play is beyond important for developing cognitive flexibility.
Allowing the objects to serve more than just their primary function is the base of new inventions!
Play along with your children. Ride brooms or make airplanes out of spoons – provide as many materials and household objects to inspire them to think creatively as possible!
However, even in those situations when there’s no object that you’re using, you can play guessing games, pose interesting “what if” questions, ask them to imagine themselves being in different situations… The chances are that you as an adult will have fun too!
To put a puzzle together you need to focus, identify the pieces and connect them. Meanwhile, you need to be observant enough to spot that some pieces do not go together and try different ones.
This is an activity for different aspects of executive functioning: attention, working memory, impulse-control and cognitive flexibility.
This is the period in which you’ll see your child’s cognitive skills maturing quicker than ever. Their curiosity about the world develops as they ask questions and discover what’s around them. This is the process that needs facilitation and support.
At the same time, it is important to allow them to move and run and channel their physical energy in a constructive way.
This is the time when children need to be engaged in those activities that can help them improve their fine motor skills. They are highly unlikely to think of what to build, and this is where your role as a parent is very important.
Try to find something that matches your child’s interest that is challenging enough, but relatively easy to build. This can be something you can do with your child as a way to spend time together constructively.
By doing crafts, a child learns a lot about analyzing the material they have, planning and organizing their actions, asking for help, problem-solving and time-management.
Animated movies that are adapted to children can be a source of new topics for you and your child.
To be able to talk about the movie, a child needs to pay attention to what’s going on in it. So, after the movie has finished, try to initiate a conversation about it.
Questions such as, “Remember what happened at the beginning?”, require them to recall the events in the movie and place them on a timeline. This is a good practice for storytelling (and a good exercise for a child’s working memory!)
At this age, kids are learning how to look at situations from somebody else’s point of view. This makes it a good time to introduce different perspectives through creative play. How is it to be a doctor or a vet? Or a teacher? Or a mom?
Try to provide kits to encourage this kind of role play. Medical kits, chock and board, baby bottle and a towel, etc. Play along!
Act as their patient, bring a toy animal to their “office” for examination, ask them to cook something for you… This will make a game more interesting and more useful for their development.
Stories can be told in many different ways – through books, videos, a walk around the park or visit to the museum or theater. The key is that you expose kids to storytelling and help them learn how to listen, remember and retell them.
After they hear a story, ask them to make something out of it – to draw something that reminds them of a story, to act as if they are the character from it or to tell you the most interesting bits from it.
Play songs, and have them learn and sing along. If you add movement to that, you will be helping your child learn how to coordinate words and physical movements. A Freeze game is a very cool one to practice impulse-control. You can make it easier or harder by instructing kids to freeze in a certain position.
Activities such as clapping rhythms are great for kids this age. The examples of these are: Miss Mary Mack or Down Down Baby
Mazes, puzzles, draw in steps and other tasks on paper can be quite interesting for kids this age. They help with fine motor skills, but are also great for attention, working memory and their cognitive flexibility.
There are many exercises to be found in printable forms online for free, shared by various contributors. You can print them at home and have them ready for your kid to use at any time.
You can also use variations of memory or guessing games. Treasure hunts, games of investigation and finding clues are also great for the purpose of developing executive functions.
Doing experiments at home is another great way to engage your kids in learning about the world. How do these improve their executive functioning?
Well, they need to analyze what is necessary for the experiment, what happened in it, what the results are and to be ready to repeat it independently.
There are many cool videos online that you can use as inspiration!
This might be the time when you, as parent, start seeing and hearing about executive functions everywhere. If you haven’t been thinking much about them before, this is the point where you just cannot miss them.
This is also a time when challenges you thought weren’t a big deal may start being reflected in your child’s academic performance.
Not having enough attention to do a puzzle might have seemed like something you could tolerate, but lacking focus to finish homework is something you feel you need to do something about. School puts executive function skills to the test, and that test has immediate scores – visible through academic performance.
However, if it is the executive skills that are causing problems, more and more homework and persuasion is highly unlikely to produce improvement. This is why, beside working on study skills, make sure that you have time to invest in other activities that help the improvement of executive functions.
In fact, these activities employ the same skills that are necessary for schooling and academic success – and that is because they help improve attention, memory, cognitive flexibility and impulse-control.
Kids are passionately curious beings. Unfortunately, schools sometimes have a hard time bringing children’s interests into the curriculum. This is why it is important that we provide them with experiences where they can explore and research.
This is what good teachers do well! They use things kids are interested in to help them learn how to structure their quest for knowledge. They teach how to find and use different materials, from encyclopedias, to online videos, to conversation with others.
Along with that, they teach how to collect and record the information they learn. At the end, they encourage them to share their knowledge with others.
So, let’s say that your child is interested in rocks. Talk to them about where they could find them, and how they could collect them and learn more about them. Help them look for the information and join them in their research.
Helping them put the process down, based on their practical experience, allows transference of the same process of learning to school.
Organized sports are structured activity in which you need to work with others or on your own to make the best of the game. This is where you need to listen carefully, invest effort, stay focused and try as hard as you can.
Sports are not only good for your child’s physical health but are also a great learning experience. They promote growth-mindset, and encourage kids to stay on task, focused and determined, but also to adapt to the group or surroundings, understand the rules and restrictions and follow them.
Many kids are, unfortunately, glued to screens. This is why parents sometimes find it hard to motivate them to do something that is not online or digital.
Well, if you feel like you are in that situation, there’s still something you can do. Games that involve strategic approach serve well for the improvement of executive functions. Here’s why:
All of these actions require executive function skills.
Use those games that might also have something educational about them. Joining your child in playing games might also help you understand better how to adapt the game or suggest a new one so that it’s more engaging and growth-promoting.
Everything from cleaning a room to working around the yard is a useful activity for practicing executive functions. Projects (no matter what their nature is) involve planning of steps, execution and monitoring.
Assigning certain chores to your kids helps them be more accountable and helps them take ownership of their work. Plus, it keeps them active and busy.
Puzzles are great for improving a child’s reasoning.
They help set the mind in the problem-solving mode that is necessary for almost all school assignments. They are also very useful for improving attention span and working memory.
Working on them together brings interaction into play. That is a good way to connect with your child, to teach them strategies on how to approach the problem and work through to a solution.
These activities are useful in managing impulsiveness, reflecting upon your actions and learning to understand your own self-talk.
The combination of aerobic activity and addressing emotional, social and character development is what makes activities such as yoga or martial arts so efficient for improving executive functions. 
Here’s one Navy SEAL breathing activity that can be used by both kids and adults:
…Executive functions develop throughout our whole life. Some functions, such as working memory, develop faster than others. Some take more time and experience, such as cognitive flexibility.
As a parent, you play a crucial role in your child’s development. Your child needs you to stick with them on that journey.
These activities are just some of the many that we are sure you can discover with your child.
Use your own playfulness to add to them, and adapt them to your child’s needs and interests. Employ your executive function skills to help them organize new adventures, invent new ways to play, learn and think creatively.
Learning is the best when it’s fun!
Ana Jovanovic is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in working with children and adolescents. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. Since she works mostly remotely, her clients come from around the world. Besides working with children, Ana also supports adults in navigating through the challenges of parenthood. She has been working in many multidisciplinary teams, cooperating with teachers, speech therapists, special educators, school counselors and psychiatrists. Ana is a firm believer in lifelong learning and continuously invests in her education. For her, the core of the therapeutic or coaching process is a relationship that gives a person the confidence to share, where their thoughts and emotions are welcomed and understood.
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