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How Children Develop Executive Functioning Skills Through Play

What are Executive Functioning Skills?

‘Executive functioning’ is an umbrella term that refers to the self-regulatory skills that develop during early childhood and into the teen years, that allow us to plan, organise, make decisions, and learn from past mistakes. Executive functions contain three major components: inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Inhibitory control -This is the ability to master thoughts and impulses. Inhibitory control allows us to resist temptations, distractions, and habits. It gives us the ability to stop and think before acting.[i]

Working memory – The second executive skill of working memory refers to a child’s ability to ‘hold, update and manipulate verbal or nonverbal information in the mind over a short period of time.’[ii]

Cognitive flexibility -Cognitive flexibility is the ability to change focus or attention and adjust to changing demands, priorities or perspectives.

By developing these skills, children learn to filter out distractions, resist inappropriate or non-productive impulses, maintain focus and remember the information they need to complete a task. Typically, most children make significant progress in their ability to focus attention, plan a sequence of actions, inhibit appropriate responses and think flexibly between the ages of two and six.[iii]

Executive Function Difficulties

It is important to remember that executive functioning skills take time to fully develop, and some of the following observations are completely expected and age-appropriate for young children. However, if these observations persist, it may indicate that the child would benefit from practising and developing these skills with parents, teachers and/or an occupational therapist. The good news is, the human brain’s plasticity and enormous capacity for learning, means that it is possible to improve a person’s executive functions through a system of strategies and support.

Here are a few observations that may suggest poor executive function skills;

  • Trouble controlling emotions or impulses
  • Problems starting, organising, planning or completing tasks
  • Trouble listening or paying attention
  • Short term memory issues
  • Inability to multitask or balance tasks
  • Socially inappropriate behaviour
  • Inability to learn from past consequences
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Difficulty learning or processing new information[iv]

Why Play is Important in Developing Executive Functioning Skills

Pretend play

The role of pretend play in a child’s development of executive function skills is significant. During intentional imaginary play children can imitate the world they see around them, and try out different roles. Play scenarios allow children to explore and develop rules for different roles, which they can encourage one another to follow.

Players often take ideas from their own lives, such as going to the doctor’s office. They might act “sick,” be examined by the doctor, and receive a vaccination. The “doctor” talks and acts like a doctor (calm and reassuring), the “sick child” talks and acts like a sick child (sad and scared), and the child in the role of “parent” talks and acts like a concerned parent (worried and caring). [v]

Songs and Actions

Songs that require children to synchronise words with rhythm and actions are a great way to practise using their inhibitory control and working memory skills. As children become more confident and skilled at this, it is important to challenge them with increasingly complex songs and games.

Play Equipment

We know that play equipment such as climbing frames, seesaws, obstacle courses, balancing beams etc are fun, but its also the perfect opportunity for children to focus their attention, monitor and adjust their actions and stick to it until the task has been mastered.

Matching and Sorting Games

Matching and sorting games are a fun way to promote cognitive flexibility. Children can first sort by one rule e.g. colour, and then by shape, etc. As children develop this skill, the rules can be made increasingly complex. For example, ‘play a bingo or lotto game, in which children have to mark a card with the opposite of what is called out by the leader (e.g., for “day,” putting a chip on a night time picture). Children have to inhibit the tendency to mark the picture that matches, while also remembering the game’s rule.’[vi]


Involving children in cooking can also be a great way to develop their executive functioning skills. Waiting for instructions requires inhibitory control, and remembering these directions encourages the use of their working memory. Measuring, counting and stirring are all great ways to help them hone their attention on a task too.

Interactive Metronome (IM)

This is a therapeutic tool that is used within OT sessions designed specifically to work on executive functioning skills. It requires the child to keep the rhythm and clap ‘super right on’ the beat. It provides the child with either visual or auditory cues to assist their performance in the moment. The challenge is to persevere, make adjustment in performance and attend over time. The IM can be purchased for home and a home program can be set up and monitored by your child’s Occupational Therapist.

[i] Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, ‘Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence’

[ii] Obradovic, J., Portilla, X., & Boyce, W. T. (2012). Executive functioning and developmental neuroscience: Current progress and implications for early childhood education. In R. C. Pianta (Ed.). Handbook of early childhood education (324-352). New York, NY: The Guilford Press, p.326.

[iii] Berk, L. E. & Meyers, A. B. (2013). The role of make-believe play in the development of executive function: Status of research and future directions. American Journal of Play, 6(1), 98-110.

[iv] Medical News Today, ‘What to Know About Executive Function Disorder,’ June 2019.

[v] Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, p 6.

[vi] Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University p 7.

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