Using Games and Activities to Promote Executive Function Skills

This month’s newsletter and free trial course explore the Executive Function (EF) skills that help children (and adults) so successfully navigate daily routines and challenges. These skills can be broken down into a few general categories:

  • Inhibition control or the ability to manage strong emotions and impulses.
  • Interference control or the ability to regulate attention and focus
  • Working memory to be able to store and use information.
  • Mental flexibility that allows us to think differently about situations to plan and problem solve.

If you take a moment to reflect on the games and activities that are common in early childhood, you will be able to recognize how these EF skills are used regularly.

  • Waiting for a turn requires inhibition control.
  • Being ready to catch a ball in the outfield requires interference control (attention).
  • Playing a game of Memory activates working memory skills to find matching cards.
  • Sorting activities and problem-solving games utilize mental flexibility.

While it is clear that children are practicing these skills when engaged in these familiar activities and games, it is also a good idea to create intentional opportunities for children to build these skills. As you become more familiar with the nuances of executive function skills, you will be able to create even more learning opportunities and scaffold children’s experiences in meaningful ways.

The next time you are lesson planning, highlight the activities that promote EFs. See if you can add one or two more activities that require EF skills. When you introduce these activities to the children, let them know what skills they are going to have to use. For example, you might say, “Today we are going to be playing Simon Says and you are going to have to pay close attention to my words.”

Another way to promote EF skills is to recognize when children are using the skills in action! When you recognize that a child is waiting for their turn, you can acknowledge the child using words that they will understand. For example, you might say, “Samin, I know you really want it to be your turn – you are working hard to stay patient.” This helps children recognize the emotions associated with waiting for a turn and that they are actively in control of remaining patient.

Here are a few resources that include games and activities that you can modify for the children in your care: