Every child is obviously unique and some struggle with learning disabilities. But, researchers say the main reason children cannot focus their attention, remember what they need to do, or stay on track is that they don’t have the necessary “executive functioning skills”.
This blogpost aims to introduce the concept of Executive Function (EF) and answer the important question: “How can we as parents use play to build this important set of skills long before our child’s first school day?”
Executive Function is an umbrella term for the set of mental skills that equips human beings to get things done.
We humans are expected to be far more sophisticated in terms of thinking and reasoning than animals. Therefore, starting in early childhood, we develop a special set of mental skills that manage how we cope with the unique demands that are placed on us, such as learning to plan ahead, intentionally staying on task, and monitoring our progress.
Developmental psychologists say the human brain needs a director.
Just as a conductor works to coordinate the actions of many musicians to get them to complement each other, the EF skills manage the brain regions in the rest of the brain so that they know when to join in and when to wait their turn.1
The EF skills develop through ongoing brain wiring in the part of the brain that is situated under your child’s forehead.
Although it takes almost 30 years for this part of the brain to fully mature, the preschool years are by far the most impressionable. The good news is that we, as parents, can help build them in our children with practice just as we can help our children get better at any other brain-based skill, such as their social skills, ball skills, or language proficiency.
There are 3 key fundamental EF skills.
During the pre-school years, children need to develop 3 fundamental skills that serve as a foundation for developing other, more sophisticated EF skills when they’re older. 2
1. Working Memory.
Working memory enables a person to keep information in mind just long enough to be able to work with it.
This is the skill that makes it possible for a toddler to remember what he is supposed to do all the way to the other side of the room after a parent has asked him to fetch something. Without it, a person struggles to go through the process of hearing an instruction, understanding the instruction, interpreting it, and using that information to take action or complete a task.
As an example, when a child is presented with a simple math problem in school (for example, what’s 3 + 3?), they use their working memory to keep themselves on track as they listen to the problem, interpret it, make their calculations, and deliver their answer.
2. Inhibitory Control
Inhibitory control enables us to hold back impulsive behaviours, impulses, and desires.
Children need this skill to make it possible for them to stay on task. Practically speaking, it empowers them to sit and listen when someone is talking to them, keep their hands to themselves when they feel like grabbing something that they find desirable from someone else, use their “inside voice” when it’s appropriate, and finish a task instead of walking away when they no longer feel like doing it.3
3. Mental Flexibility
Cognitive (mental) flexibility makes it possible for children to change mental gears.
Without this important skill, children struggle to adapt when the rules or demands of a game or situation change. Adults and school aged children who haven’t developed mental flexibility can’t keep up when a task demands of them to think on their feet and change direction when needed. Moreover, when they solve problems, they typically get stuck doing things in a particular way and following certain thought patterns.
The very best way to develop executive functioning is through play.
Self-directed play is valuable because it’s child-led. In other words, this is when children play independently or with an adult who is following their lead. The child is central to setting the pace and coming up with ideas for things to do as the experience unfolds. The parent watches the child and responds to what they say and do to keep their attention focused and possibly expand on their play – without teaching or correcting.
Examples of self-directed play include free play with building blocks, pretend play, and cooperative fantasy play with a group of friends (like playing shop or pretending to be working at a hospital).
This type of play is good for the development of concentration skills because children are so invested in their own free play that they are motivated to keep playing.
Self-directed play’s most valuable contribution to the development of EF is that it builds inhibitory control in children. However, it also develops working memory and mental adaptability because children often create a complete set of rules for themselves when they engage in role-play and they have to adapt to what other children come up with.
Interestingly enough, the rules that children create for themselves as they play are perfectly age-appropriate because they are based on the child’s personal interpretation (for example, a child cannot act like a child when he is pretending to be an elephant. He is restricted by his understanding of what an elephant would do).4
Instructional play is valuable because it’s adult-led. This type of play is commonly labelled as “educational activities” or “educational games”. This typically refers to situations where a parent, teacher or therapist takes the lead and introduces a certain challenge to the child.
These activities and games typically have certain fixed rules.
For the purposes of developing EF skills, this type of play provides opportunities for children to practice inhibitory control and adapting to changing rules. However, its most valuable contribution is that games teach children to stay on task and keep information in mind (working memory).5
To summarize, self-directed play and instructional play offer the two golden gateways to the development of EF skills.
Children learn to manage themselves when they engage in self-directed play (free-play and pretend play), because this type of play encourages them to place certain demands on themselves “from-the-inside-out”.
On the other hand, instructional play (educational games and activities) places demands on children “from-the-outside-in”. It prepares pre-schoolers for the demands that will be placed on them in primary school one day, such as actively participating in lesson discussions, following instructions, and learning to read, write and do mathematics.
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