Health & Well-Being: Executive Functions, Part 1

Meredith Jones Russell
Monday, September 16, 2019

Activities for three to fives

EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS – working memory, mental flexibility and self-control – are critical to learning and self-regulation. To develop these skills in children, make the most of imaginary play and storytelling.

Imaginary play

During imaginary play, children develop rules to guide their actions. They also hold complex ideas in mind and shape their actions to follow these rules, inhibiting impulses that don’t fit the role. Players often take ideas from their own lives, such as going to the doctor’s. While younger children tend to play alone or in parallel, three to fives are learning to play co-operatively and are often regulating each other’s behaviour – an important step in developing self-regulation.

Read books, go on trips or use videos to make sure that children understand the pretend play scenario.

Provide a varied set of resources – realistic props such as toy medical kits for younger children, or junk items such as a cardboard tube to use as a cast for a broken arm for older children. Reusing familiar objects in a new way also practises cognitive flexibility.

Allow children to make their own play props.

Encourage children to use play plans, where together they decide their roles and actions before they start, then draw their plan on paper to practise inhibitory control, social problem-solving and language skills.


Children’s early stories tend to be a series of events but lack any larger structure. With practice, children develop more complex and organised plots. As the complexity grows, children practise holding and manipulating information in their working memory.

Encourage children to tell you stories and write them down to read together.

Tell group stories. One child starts the story, and each person in the group adds something to it, challenging their attention, working memory, and self-control.

Have children act out their stories. The story provides a structure that guides children’s actions and requires them to pay attention to and follow the narrative, while inhibiting their impulse to create a new plot.

Bilingual families should tell stories in their home language to support a variety of executive function skills that bilingual children benefit from.

Courtesy of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child

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