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Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play, was quoted in 2008 as saying, “Nothing lights up a child’s brain like play!” He’s correct! We know that play is required for our children’s physical and social development, but it’s also crucial for children to develop strong executive functioning skills.
What are executive functions? It’s a wide array of self-regulating and organizing behaviors vital for successful adulthood. Although developing these functions depends somewhat on the prefrontal cortex maturing, even very young children show signs of curbing their instincts and attempting to regulate their behavior from a very young age. Play, both free and structured, help children practice and master skills like following instructions, planning their time, trying after a failure, and organizing their resources.
1. Open-Ended Play
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What is open-ended play? It is play that encourages children to make their own choices and test their boundaries while also freely expressing their creativity. Adults shouldn’t intervene except in matters of physical or emotional safety. Children will use this play to explore dealing with difficult situations and emotions. They use their own worldview and imaginations to create a world to their own liking. Making their own decisions and deciding how to structure their play without adult guidance is key in developing behavior regulation, the ability to work with others, and planning projects (even if the project is building a fort out of empty boxes!).
2. Play Develops Confidence
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Play is a key part of children developing confidence. Adults sometimes forget this, but children like to feel successful. Just like we do! And play allows children to master concepts and situations. The confidence they pick up after successful play periods will help guide them to attempt more complex challenges now and in the future.
3. Learning to Put Tasks in Sequential Order
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Knowing how to break down a bigger task into a set of smaller tasks is an important step in being able to independently tackle challenging school assignments or personal projects. Suggest playtime activities that encourage children to undertake multiple steps that must be completed in a certain order. So when playing restaurant guide children through the process-being seated, handing out menus, taking the order, delivering the food, and presenting the check. Baking with kids is another fun project that helps them learn how to perform a task in the correct order (preheating the oven, bringing certain ingredients to room temperature, et cetera).
4. Calming Space
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Every child needs a calming space to retreat to when their emotions threaten to overwhelm. Retreating to this space and choosing a quiet activity (even if it’s simply staring into space!) is an important part of learning how to self-regulate emotions and perform appropriate (and needed!) self-care.
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Don’t always insist your children stick to a schedule. Play evolves to express into more complex structures and expressions when children are allowed time to dig in and work out their ideas. This sort of in-depth play supports children’s organizational and overall cognitive development more than quick play breaks. Work-in-progress signs can protect artistic endeavors and box cities when your family must break for another activity or bed.
6. Stop, Look, Listen
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When playing with your children it’s important to model good executive functioning. When playing a game take a moment before you pick up the game piece. Talk out loud so your children hear your thought process and strategizing (“Let me think, if I move this way then this could happen, or if I go this way…”). It will allow your children to model their thinking patterns on yours! Playing games like Red Light-Green Light, chess, or dominoes all teaches children cause and effect and the importance of paying attention.
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Learning how to tell a story is vital for a child’s social and intellectual development. Telling a story requires utilizing executive functioning skills like accessing working memory, tying elements of the story together, and relating similar things together. Waiting on their turn to tell a story helps children master impulse control. Encourage dinner time storytelling with the whole family but also one on one time where a child can tell a story they made up or relate something that happened to them that day.
Find more about the author: Kim Hart