When faced with familiar situations, we don't have to think too hard. We have a mental map, a schema, for how a ball will drop because of hours spent testing this out as children. And we instinctively recoil from spiders. Our ancestors learnt to do that to survive.
But what about those situations where we have to override our instincts or tackle something new? We can't rely on past experiences. We have to resist the quick response and stop to work things through in our minds.
We need to use our executive functions.
No, these aren't something you do in an office. They're a set of capabilities that allow us plan, to set goals, to resist temptation and to stay on task.
How does all this apply to early childhood?
These skills take years to develop and some don't fully mature until adulthood. But we can make a start even in infancy. Here are three to try:
Working memory: Learn actions to nursery rhymes. This even works for babies, who can't sing the words or perform the actions but are able to anticipate the exciting part. For example, the tickle at the end of 'This little piggy went to market'
Self-regulation: We can learn to take turns and regulate our impulses by playing games with others. Board games and sport are great for this.
Cognitive flexibility: Play a familiar game but change the rules. Sing heads, shoulders, knees and toes, but touch the opposite body part, so toes for head, knees for shoulders and head for toes.
As ever with this 30-day series, the theory sounds more complicated than the reality. Play a few games, and occasionally change the rules for added fun. That's it.
Here's the rest of the series:
Encourage open-ended play for creativity and focus
Understanding schema play in toddlers
Independent play and why it matters
Insider Guide: Small World Play and Language
Tell Almost Any Story with Just a Handful of Figures
A simple guide to choosing the right toy