Executive functioning skills are the “soft skills” that are seldom explicitly taught to children; however, they are essential to completion of tasks and demonstration of knowledge. They are also essential to successful social interactions and daily living.
The summer, when we spend more time with our kids and engage in novel and interesting activities, is the perfect time to encourage the development of executive functioning skills. Family activities, social situations, and games can all be orchestrated to foster skills like self-monitoring, response inhibition, working memory, task initiation, and planning and prioritizing.
Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child recommends role playing, imaginary play, and storytelling to develop executive skills in pre-school-aged children. Learning to take turns and mimicking mature tasks help children get ready to meet the social and attentional demands of kindergarten. Singing songs that repeat and add, change, or delete words, like B-I-N-G-O and Wheels on the Bus, help develop working memory. Matching and sorting activities, increasingly challenging puzzles, and cooking encourage working memory, planning, and sustained attention.
Reading and visits to the library are perfect for those hot summer days by the pool or enjoying the cool of indoor. Ellen Galinsky and her colleagues at Mind in the Making have created lists of books and accompanying tip sheets that promote focus and self-control, perspective-taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed engaged learning. The book lists include selections for children age birth through 12 years.
Games of all sorts, and designed for all ages, can promote various executive skills while increasing family time and decreasing screen time. Word and language games, such as Fannee Doolee, are especially adaptable to travel and situations that require waiting. The professionals at Understood provide us with 7 Tips for Building Flexible Thinking, which includes directions for this clever game.
Another list of activities for kids and teenagers can be found at Left Brain Buddha. Games like Simon Says require response inhibition and attention, while card games like Uno require working memory and attention. To engage and entertain teenagers, try games like Taboo and Apples to Apples that require complex thinking and impulse control.
Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child and Left Brain Buddha agree that games of strategy, like Risk, are especially valuable in developing planning, prioritizing, and other executive skills. Michelle and Kira at Sunshine and Hurricanes have created a list of the best board games for teenagers, actually chosen by teenagers.
So, whether your family is traveling around the world; playing word games and I Spy in the car or at the airport; planning a staycation that includes trips to the library and playing board games together; or maintaining the status quo with daily meal preparation, playdates, and sleepovers, there are always ways to incorporate executive skills development into the summer months. Your kids will be better prepared for the social and academic demands of school in the fall, and they might discover a new pastime in the process!
Written by: Kerrilee Wing
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.
Mind in the Making website: www.mindinthemaking.org
Left Brain Buddha: the modern mindful life: http://leftbrainbuddha.com/
Sunshine and Hurricanes: smart parenting with purpose: https://www.sunshineandhurricanes.com/
Oxford University Press: Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: https://academic.oup.com/scan
Attention Deficit Disorder Association: https://add.org/