Activities that develop executive function from infancy to adolescence

Children are not born with an inner ability to manage and organise themselves successfully (and I am sure every parent would attest to that!) but the potential to do so is there and it grows with the development of a set of cognitive skills called executive function. When kids have issues with executive functioning, any task that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking becomes a challenge. According to the Developing Child Centre at Harvard University, there are three main components of executive function:

  • Working Memory – the ability to hold information in mind and use it.
  • Cognitive/Mental flexibility – the capacity to switch gears and adjust to changing demands, priorities and perspectives
  • Self/Inhibitory control – the ability to master thoughts and impulses so as to temptations and distractions and be able to pause and think before acting

To understand more about executive function and how it works, you can read our previous article on Understanding Executive Function. Executive function skills have a profound impact on a child’s overall school performance and later in life; parents therefore need to be intentional about developing these skills in their children, from infancy right up to adolescence. There are age-appropriate activities that help children to develop in executive function and these will be summarised in this article. These activities are derived from the Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence Guide compiled by the Developing Child Centre at Harvard.

  1. Infants (6 – 18 months)
  • Hiding games
    • Hide and find games are a great way to challenge working memory. Playing Peekaboo with your baby challenges him/her to remember who is hiding and they also practise basic self-control skills when taking turns with you in playing the game.
    • Hiding toys (i.e. hiding a toy under a cloth) and encouraging your infant to look for it is another hiding game to play. Once your baby can find the toy quickly, hide it in a different place and show him/her that you have moved it. You can make more moves to enhance the challenge. As your baby remembers where the toy was and mentally tracks its moving, they exercise their working memory.
  • Imitation or copying games. Infants love to copy adults. You can play games with your baby where he/she needs to imitate simple body gestures like clapping/waving hands or a simple arrangement of toys (ie.building blocks). When they imitate, they have to keep track of your actions, remember them, wait their turn and then repeat what you did. In doing so, they practise working memory and self-control.
  •  Conversations
    • Simply talking to your baby is a wonderful way to build attention, working memory and self-control. Pointing out objects, naming them out aloud and talking often to your little one helps them to focus their attention, even as they develop in language perception.
    • If you home environment is bilingual, bilingualism has also been found to be very beneficial for developing executive function in children of all ages
  1. Toddlers (18-36months) & Pre-schoolers (3-5years)
Mother talking to child:
Mother talking to child:
  • Language Development
    • During these formative stages, language development plays an important role in developing executive function as it helps children to identify their thoughts and actions, reflect on them and make plans that they hold and use in mind.
    • Language also helps children to follow rules/instructions as they become more complex.
    • Bilingualism is a significant added advantage for developing executive function during these stages, so nurture bilingualism in your child as early as possible.
    • Two ways in which toddlers and pre-schoolers can develop language is through conversation and storytelling. Talking to your child often, telling/reading stories to them and listening to their stories are all helpful for their language development
    • Preschoolers can engage in group stories (where one child starts a story and each person in the group adds to it) and can also act out their stories.
  • Active games
    • Active games require children at this stage to focus and sustain their attention on a goal, control unnecessary distractions and try things in new ways if a first attempt fails.
    • For toddlers, these activities include physical activities such as throwing and catching balls, balancing exercises, simple imitation games (i.e. follow the leader) and games involving hand gestures and finger play with song or rhyme
    • For pre-schoolers appropriately challenging song-and-movement games develop executive function because children have to move to a specific rhythm and synchronize words to actions and the music. Songs that repeat and add on (i.e. Let’s play, She’ll be coming round) are also a good challenge to working memory
    • Activities involving climbing structures, balance beams, seesaws and skipping are also beneficial for preschoolers
  • Matching/Sorting games
  • Games that involve sorting or matching by colour, shape or size exercise the working memory of your toddler as they require him/her to first of all understand the rule and retain it in their minds as they sort the toys. These games can be made more challenging and complex for preschoolers
  • Jigsaw puzzles (which are also an exercise in sorting and matching) also help to exercise your toddler’s working memory and cognitive flexibility. These too, at a more challenging and complex level, are beneficial for preschoolers
  • Imaginary Play
    • As your child assumes and assigns various roles whilst using different toys/objects during pretend play they develop self-regulation and cognitive flexibility skills.
    • For pre-schoolers, provide a varied set of props and toys for them to use which can also include toy kits (i.e. medical kits, kitchen kits, building/fixing kits)
  1. Primary Schoolers (6-12years)
Family playing a board game:
Family playing a board game:

At this age, children start to engage more in games that have rules but do so with varying levels of interest and skill. A key element to be aware of, in development of executive function skills, is that children need to be constantly challenged. So choose games that are challenging but not too hard for your child. As children become familiar with these games, adult involvement should decrease; the challenge is greater for children if they remember and enforce the rules independently, and learn also, to negotiate conflict.

  • Card games and board games and quite activities
    • Card games that require the players to remember the location of particular cards (i.e. Concentration) are good for exercising working memory. Those which require children to match playing cards by suit or number are good for cognitive flexibility and those which require fast responses and monitoring are great for developing attention and inhibition control.
    • Board games that involve any form of strategy provide opportunities to make and hold a plan in mind for several moves ahead, and adjust strategy in response to opponents’ moves. Games like Checkers, Battleship and Sorry! are appropriate for younger children in primary school whilst the likes of Chess and Go are better suited for the older age groups. As children strategise this way, they exercise working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility
    • Quiet activities requiring strategy and reflection. Activity books with puzzles, brain teasers, mazes, crossword puzzles etc are great for developing working memory and cognitive flexibility in primary-school level children
  • Physical activities/games

Games that require attention and quick responses help children to exercise attention and inhibition control.

Children playing dodgeball
Children playing dodgeball
  • Fast-moving ball games (i.e. dodgeball and foursquare) are good for quick decision making and self-control.
  • Simon Says is a great game for exercising attention, inhibition control and cognitive flexibility.
  • Complicated clapping rhythms are also helpful for developing all the three components of executive function.
  • For the older primary school children, jump rope games (i.e. Fish Fish) are great for developing inhibitory control and working memory
  • Organized sports at this level also develop children’s ability to hold rules and strategies in mind, monitor their own and others’ actions and make quick decisions
  • Playing musical instruments exercises attention and self-monitoring whilst also developing working memory in children at this stage
  • Video and online gaming are also great for developing executive function at this stage. This is because games require players to move rapidly, keep track of many items at once, hold a good deal of information in their mind at the same time and make split-second decisions
  1. Teenagers (13+ years)

Teenagers need to communicate effectively in multiple contexts, manage their own school and extracurricular assignments, and successfully complete more abstract complicated projects. Goal setting, planning and monitoring skills are essential at this stage.

  • Help your teenager to develop plans for what they want to achieve
  • They should set and identify short and long term goals
  • They need to break down the task into sizable parts
  • They need to monitor how they are performing on the task and make adjustments where necessary
  • They need to strive to accomplish the task on time

Activities that develop executive function in adolescents are in many ways similar to those that apply to primary school children, only that they are more advanced. Sports, music, dance, theatre, gaming, puzzles and strategy games are all helpful for developing teenagers’ executive function.

Executive function, as you will probably have gathered by now, is achieved through activities that are a regular part (or should be) of your child’s life. A little bit of intentionality on your part is all that is required to make sure that your child is sufficiently equipped to be well able to organise and manage themselves successfully.


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