Ava is having a great time with her electronic animal sounds game. When the computerized voice hee-haws, the two-year-old cries out, “dun-kee!” and presses the donkey picture on the touch pad. This gizmo also has games for identifying colours, number and shapes. Ava now knows two dozen animals and 30 colours, including obscure ones like magenta.
Three-year-old Tyler and his dad are “camping” in the spare bedroom. They pitch their tent by stretching out some sheets. They pretend to gather wood, build a campfire and cook a meal. After dinner they sing some songs and then “go to sleep.” Tyler plays the role of the parent while his dad pretends to be the kid.
Which of these activities does the most to help a child get ready to learn at school?
There’s nothing wrong with Ava learning the names of animals and colours, but Tyler’s imaginary camping game is actually doing more to prepare him to be a good learner.
When we think about brain power, we tend to think about intelligence and knowledge. But what really sets a child up for learning life skills—even being happy—is a set of abilities that psychologists call executive function. You may not have heard that term before, but it is one of the most important parts of your child’s early brain development, and chances are, you’re probably already doing loads to help it along. Executive function breaks down into four general skills:
• attention focusing it, sustaining it and shifting it when you need to
• impulse control the ability to not always do or say the first thing that comes to mind
• working memory the ability to hold and use multiple thoughts in your mind
• planning being able to plan and carry out a sequence of actions to achieve a goal or solve a problem, and adjusting those plans if the situation changes
The make believe camping game gives Tyler a chance to exercise most of these skills — more later about exactly how. Tyler’s doing it because it’s fun. But here’s the bonus, says Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia: “Various studies have shown that executive function skills are more important for school readiness than a child’s IQ or level of reading and math ability as they enter school.”
Sounds like a stretch? Research found that four-year-olds who were able to wait 15 or 20 minutes before eating an offered marshmallow (hello, impulse control) were doing better in school 12 to 14 years later than kids who couldn’t wait the two minutes. Not only that, they had fewer behaviour problems and were more trustworthy and dependable. In other words, executive function doesn’t just set kids up for school, it sets them up for life.
Nurture over nature
Diamond has been studying aspects of preschool executive function for many years. One activity she uses to assess impulse control is called the “Day/Night Task.” Children are shown a random series of cards that depict either a sun or moon and stars. They’re told to say “day” when they see a moon and stars and “night” when they see the sun—obviously, the opposite of what the cards really mean. This requires them to inhibit their natural inclination to give the “right” answer.
Four-year-olds have an enormously hard time with this and similar tasks; it’s so hard to suppress that urge to give what they know is the “right” answer. But if the researcher sings a little ditty after showing the card—“Think about the answer, don’t tell me,” which forces the child to wait a couple of seconds—kids get the answer correct much more often. And they get progressively better at this task as they mature. (Adults are awesome at it!)
What’s really cool about executive function is that it is much more influenced by nurture, experience and interaction than intelligence is. “It’s hard to change IQ,” says Diamond. “But it is possible to influence a child’s ability to focus, to exert effort on a learning task or relate one idea to another.”
One word of caution. Although delaying gratification and paying attention are things we associate with “well-behaved” children, executive function should not be confused with obedience, says Stuart Shanker, distinguished professor of psychology and philosophy at York University and one of Canada’s leading experts in early brain development. “Supporting development of executive function is not about ‘making’ children comply so they will sit still and listen,” says Shanker. Rather, it’s about helping kids learn to solve problems or accomplish goals on their own—because it feels satisfying to do so, not because they’ll get a reward or avoid a punishment.
The magic of make-believe
Developing the necessary skills in kids is surprisingly simple, according to Shanker and Diamond. What helps most are old-fashioned, low-tech games and activities.
1. Pretend or dramatic play—like Tyler’s camping. “During dramatic play, children must hold their own role and the roles of others in mind,” Diamond explains. “That exercises their working memory. They have to stay in character, which helps with their inhibitory control. And they have to adjust to the twists and turns in the evolving plot, which requires them to think flexibly.”
2. Storytelling. It requires the listening kids to pay attention for long periods. As Diamond explains, listening to a story promotes a different area of brain development than what kids get from reading a picture book. Listening to a story, she says, “They use their working memory to keep track of the characters and what has happened so far, and relate that to new information as the story progresses.”
How it helps: Dramatic play is a key activity in Tools of the Mind, a preschool program specifically designed to improve executive function through play-based activities. Diamond’s research has shown that “graduates” from Tools of the Mind do better on executive function tasks than kids who participate in regular preschool programs. Tools of the Mind is not widely available in Canada, but, obviously, dramatic play and storytelling are natural do-at-home activities. So are lots of other low-tech games that aid the development of executive function. Here are some examples:
2. Obstacle course. Set up a course where your child has to go under and over various barriers (like couch cushions and coffee tables) and through tunnels. Varying the course or increasing its complexity will help to keep your child challenged.
How it helps: “Being able to control your body and plan physical actions is a fundamental part of learning how to manage your brain,” says Shanker. “So any activity that works on the child’s coordination and requires him to figure out how to do a multi-step actions to achieve a goal, is good for executive function, particularly if you keep adding new variations to the game.”
3. Using a timer. “When are we going swimming?” Preschoolers not only have enormous difficulty waiting, they don’t understand how long a half hour is. One way to make the wait a little easier for kids (and parents!) is to set a timer and let the child watch it count down until it’s time to go.
How it helps: “Timers, including egg timers, digital microwave timers and wind-up kitchen timers give children a visual representation of time counting down,” says Diamond. “This helps them learn to plan and pace themselves.”
4. Games like Simon Says or I Spy You. You remember these interactive games, don’t you? If not, your friend Google can help.
How they help: “When someone says, ‘Touch your nose’ (in Simon Says), every young child’s impulse will be to touch her nose,” says Diamond. “But, in order to succeed in the game, the child has to listen and wait for the words, Simon Says.” I Spy involves planning. Kids have to connect the verbal clue with what they can see around them, and must adjust their plan as they get more information in the form of clues. “You’re getting colder,” tells the child she’s searching in the wrong direction and “You’re getting warmer,” tells her she’s close.
5. Making cookies. Kids love mucking with (and eating!) cookie dough. Depending on your child’s age and dexterity (and your tolerance for kitchen chaos) she can help you measure out ingredients, or just add them pre-measured.
How it helps: “Following a recipe requires a child to work within a plan, and to keep ‘updating’ the plan as they think about what has been done so far, and what needs to be done next,” Diamond says.
6. Feely bag. Put familiar toys or objects in a cloth bag (plastic toy animals work well) and have a child stick his hand in the bag and try to guess to what object he is holding just from how it feels. Variation: The child feels the objects from the outside of the bag.
How it helps: Feely bag requires working memory too, but it also requires kids to connect sensory information (in this case the shape and texture of the object) with their internal picture of what the animal looks like.
It’s not that these specific activities are magic. They don’t give kids instant executive function; that develops gradually throughout childhood and adolescence. And lots of other activities provide similar sorts of brain exercise. The old card game Concentration exercises working memory. Colouring and painting require sustained attention. What all these activities have in common is that kids are doing: using their bodies, their minds and their senses at the same time in ways that help them understand how to use their brain power to make things happen.
There’s another essential part of executive function that doesn’t translate easily into an activity or game. That’s learning to manage and regulate emotions—a childhood-long work-in-progress that depends on interaction with people.
In early childhood, especially in infancy, you are a mirror for your child’s emotions. She begins to learn about pleasure by seeing your delighted smile in response to her beatific, full-body baby smile. A toddler learns about interest and curiosity when he points to a flower and you share his interest by raising your eyebrows and going over for a closer look. Shanker says these exchanges of emotional signals, which take place many times a day, help build children’s capacity for curiosity, enjoyment, and other positive emotions that are powerful drivers of learning.
You also help your child learn to manage negative emotions. When your baby cries you offer comfort. When your toddler is afraid, you give hugs and reassurance. Essentially, you’re managing their feelings for them. When kids are a little older, you help them move on from bad feelings by distracting them. You help them express emotions and put them into perspective. You teach and model coping strategies, gradually handing over to them the job of managing their own feelings.
Most parents already know these kinds of interactions are important for mental health. But they also boost brain power. Kids can’t learn well if strong negative emotions and stress often cloud their ability to think and process information.
Diamond explains that learning how to talk about negative feelings has a direct and unique impact on executive function. Brain studies show that when people look at photos of angry, sad or fearful facial expressions, it activates the amygdala—the part of the brain associated less with reasoning and more with fearful and angry emotions. But when the person attaches a verbal label—a word—to the feeling, it activates the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in executive function, and calms down the amygdala.
Isn’t this “emotional intelligence?” Sure. But in Shanker’s view, emotion is part of intelligence. “Emotion is a component of every idea, every thought,” he says. “That’s what enables the ‘eureka’ moment of insight. Positive emotions also help keep children interested enough to do the work involved in learning.”
Developing executive function is not a race, says Shanker. “Children with certain temperament traits—kids who are emotionally reactive, more physically active, more prone to explore, for example—might take longer to develop executive function than children who are less active and impulsive.” Temperamentally challenging children still benefit from—and actually really need—the sorts of activities and interactions we’ve described here. “But you may have to wait a little longer to see the results you’re hoping for,” says Shanker. “The key is to understand your child and what kind of support and guidance she needs.”
This article was originally published in July 2010.