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Learning How to Learn: Tips for Developing Executive Functioning Skills at Home

Executive function learning games for kids

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive function skills are: “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” Researchers have found that executive function skills are stronger predictors than IQ of success in school, the workforce, and later in life.

We want children to gain knowledge in a variety of topics, such as literacy, math, and science. This content is the what of learning. Executive function refers to the skills that allow children to implement and integrate content. It is the how of learning. Researchers have likened executive function to the work of an orchestra conductor or air traffic controller—taking control of multiple inputs, filtering distractions, switching gears, considering next steps, synthesizing information, and setting and achieving goals.

Three main components make up executive function:

  • Working memory: The ability to retain information over short periods of time and make use of it.
  • Self-control: The capacity to control impulses, resist temptation, and manage distractions in order to think before acting.
  • Cognitive flexibility: The ability to respond to changing demands, perspectives, or rules.
Executive function skills are shaped by our experiences and develop slowly over time, beginning in infancy and continuing into early adulthood. Teachers and parents help children foster executive function when they establish routines, model pro-social behavior, and provide opportunities for creative play—all the while allowing growing children to use skills with less and less adult intervention. Here are some suggestions for learning games for children of every age that help develop executive functioning skills.

Learning Games for Kids: Fun Ways to Learn How to Learn

Infants: Tried and true Peek-A-Boo or the predictable verses of Pat-A-Cake allow your baby to build working memory as he or she becomes familiar with the rhythm of the game and then exercises self-control while containing his or her reaction until the surprise is revealed at the end.

Toddlers: Play Red Light, Green Light. The need for the quick change from moving to still builds your child’s self-control. Periodically swap the rules. First, play the game the traditional way, and then have your child run on red and stop on green. This change in routine offers a chance for your child to practice some flexibility in his or her thinking. 

Preschool: Provide opportunities for pretend play. At this age, your child recreates scenarios he or she experiences. Your child is learning to play cooperatively with others and to negotiate and develop rules and story lines. This requires him or her to exercise flexibility, solve problems within a social context, and exercise self-regulation.

School Age: Board games that require strategy, such as Mancala or Mastermind, offer your child independence to practice inhibitory control, while combining skills such as working memory and flexibility to plan and re-plan throughout the course of the game. 

Executive function may seem like an intimidating skill set that we have to force or plan. You may feel that if you don’t get it right, your children won’t be successful. But in reality, many of the things we do in the daily course of life build executive function skills. These experiences are easy to integrate into social interactions and the natural rhythm of the day in ways that are enjoyable and relaxed, such as discussions about feelings or re-telling stories. Integrating opportunities to build executive function skills into everyday life can help build your child’s propensity to learn.

More on Executive Function:

Bright Horizons Parent Webinar featuring Ellen Galinsky: Mind In the Making 
Ellen Galinsky’s “The Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

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