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50. Executive functions

Jan 21, 2022 • 7 min read
Executive functions in the early years

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.

Despite the difficult terminology, it's not complicated: play a few games, and occasionally change the rules for added fun. That's it.


I'm Alexis, father of four and founder of One Hundred Toys. I taught in London primary schools for thirteen years, specialising in the early years. Now I write about all things play here on the blog. Read more

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