The Art of Control

Activities and resources to enhance executive function in young children

By Bari Walsh, on October 20, 2014 5:24 PM
The Art of Control: Activities and resources to enhance executive function in young children  #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

Executive function — our ability to remember and use what we know, defeat our unproductive impulses, and switch gears and adjust to new demands — is increasingly understood as a key element not just of learning but of lifelong success.

Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describe executive function as an air traffic control system for the mind — helping us manage streams of information, revise plans, stay organized, filter out distractions, cope with stress, and make healthy decisions. Children learn these skills first from their parents, through reliable routines, meaningful and responsive interactions, and play that focuses attention and stirs the beginnings of self-control. But when home is not stable, or in situations of neglect or abuse, executive function skills may be impaired, or may not develop at all, limiting a child’s success in elementary school and later life.

The Center on the Developing Child, housed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has just released a highly usable collection of resources aimed at helping educators reinforce these skills — or encourage their development in vulnerable children. The guide, called Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence, offers a broad range of age-appropriate activities and games to bolster executive function at different stages.

Below, suggested activities for children in the 3–5 age range, a period where executive function capacities spike. These activities are excerpted from a chapter of the guide that can be downloaded individually here.

Imaginary Play

“During intentional imaginary play, children develop rules to guide their actions in playing roles. They also hold complex ideas in mind and shape their actions to follow these rules, inhibiting impulses or actions that don’t fit the ‘role.’”

Support it by:

  • Reading books, taking field trips, and watching videos that help set scenes and find roles that interest children.
  • Providing props and letting them make props. Younger children may respond better to more literal, realistic props. Older children can use common household items in new ways to act out their plays, building cognitive flexibility.


“Children love to tell stories. Their early stories tend to be a series of events, each one related to the one before, but lacking any larger structure. With practice, children develop more complex and organized plots,” requiring them to hold information in working memory.

Support it by:

  • Encouraging them to tell you stories, and write them down together, so the child can revisit later. Make a picture book and let the child add new drawings to extend the story.
  • Telling group stories — one child starts, and each person adds something new.
  • Having children act out stories.
  • In bilingual settings, telling stories in different languages. Research suggests that bilingualism can benefit executive function.

Movement Challenges: Songs and Games

“The demands of songs and movement games support executive function because children have to move to a specific rhythm and synchronize words to actions and the music. All of these tasks contribute to inhibitory control and working memory.” Make sure activities become increasingly complex as children move through the age range.

Support it by:

  • Providing many chances for children to test themselves physically. Set obstacle courses. Play games that involve complex motions, like skipping.
  • Walking the balance beam — a quiet activity that rewards attention control.
  • Playing music and having children dance really fast, then really slow. Or play “freeze dance” and have children freeze in different poses.
  • Singing songs that repeat words or motions, or that add on to earlier verses — “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” “Bought Me a Cat,” and backward-counting songs such as “Five Green and Speckled Frogs.”

Resources for executive function, ages 3–5

Additional resources

  • Download the entire 16-page guide (including an introduction and extensive references) or specific chapters aimed at specific age groups.
  • Watch a video showing how early experiences shape the development of executive function.
  • Learn more about executive function and view a chart showing ages when skills develop.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker


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Topics in this article

Parenting, Schools, Learning, Teaching, Early Education