Life and learning depend on a set of skills that scientists like to call executive function. Roughly speaking, executive function consists of three related skills:
- Working memory
- Inhibitory control
Focus is the ability to pay attention to something. Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind while mentally working on it. (For example, you need to remember the rules of a game while you apply them in competition.) Inhibitory control is the ability to resist a desire to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate in the situation.1 (For example, you might be tempted to say something mean to someone, but you decide to say something nice instead — or not say anything at all.)
Executive function is a foundation of learning and life success. You can’t learn if you can’t pay attention, remember, or resist temptations.
Play games that require inhibiting instincts
There are many ways you can help your child develop these skills. One of the most fun is to play games that require kids to inhibit their instinctive responses. Here are a few ideas:
- If I tap once with my foot, you tap twice.
- If I hold up a piece of red paper, you say “green,” and if I hold up a piece of green paper, you say “red.”
- If I show you a banana, you say “apple.” If I hold up an apple, you say “banana.”
- Play “Simon Says Do the Opposite.” In this version of the game, the players have to do the opposite of what the leader says. If Simon says, “Sit,” then everyone stands. If Simon says, “Be quiet,” then everyone makes lots of noise.
- If I show you a number card, you say the number that is one higher. So if I show you a “seven,” you say “eight.”
Be prepared to experiment a little to find the right level of challenge for your child. You can make up many variations and speed things up or down to keep your child challenged and having fun.
John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby, regularly played these kinds of games with his young children and reports that he and his kids often ended up rolling on the floor laughing.2 That’s what you’re aiming for!
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- This definition is inspired by Adele Diamond’s description of inhibitory control, found on page 23 of Ellen Galinsky’s book Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. Galinsky provides an excellent introduction to executive function on pages 12-16 .
- John Medina, Brain Rules for Baby, p. 294.