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Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

This article is part of our weekly series Executive Function Tips for Families.

This activity offers your child the opportunity to practice key executive function skills, such as following instructions, controlling reactions, and recalling information.

Objective:

Would you like for your child to get better at following directions? If so, then take a look at this fun game to help your child work on their memory AND follow your directions!

In this activity, your child will stand across from you and play a game where they touch their head, shoulders, knees, or toes based on what you say. Harder levels involve doing the opposite of what you say or identifying other body parts.

Executive Function Skills Practiced:

  • EF: Working memory – Your child will have to remember which body part they are supposed to be touching.
  • EF: Inhibitory control – Your child will have to think about touching the opposite body part, instead of touching the one you say.
  • EF: Cognitive flexibility – Your child will have to switch from one thought to another, as they try to react to the instruction they have been given.

Duration: 5-10 minutes

Materials: None

Environment:

  • Medium-sized room
  • Outdoor space

Ready To Play?

Game Levels and Step-by-Step Instructions:

  • You can adjust the activity at any time if it seems too difficult or easy. To do this, simply move up or down a level.
    • Read: Check out this article for more information about the stages of EF!
  • Give your child some think-time if needed. 
  • If needed at any level, model the motions by touching your own body parts along with your child.

Game Level 1– (2-3 years): Identifying Body Parts

  1. Teach them different body parts by naming them and touching them on your body. For example:

    “Where is my knee? Here it is!” (touch your knee)

    “Can you find your knee? Where is (your child’s name)’s knee?”

  2. Repeat the game, having your child practice pointing to their head, shoulders, knees, and toes.

Game Level 2– (3-4 years): Following Instructions

  1. Let them practice following your instructions. For example:

    “We’re going to play a game where you copy what I do. First, touch your head.” (Touch your head with both hands. Wait for your child to put their hands on their head.)

    “Good! Now, touch your toes.” (Touch your toes with both hands to model.)

  2. Repeat these two commands with motions again, or until your child is able to copy you correctly.
  3. Continue to play the game adding knees and shoulders to the instructions.

Game Level 3– (4-5+ years): Working on Opposites (Head and Toes)

  1. Tell your child that you’re going to play the same game again (Game Level 2), but this time, they’re going to do the opposite, or something different from what you say.
  2. Explain to them that when you tell them to touch their head, instead of touching their head, they should touch their toes. 
  3. Next, explain that when you say to touch your toes, they should touch their head.
  4. Check that your child understands how to play by asking them to show you what they should do when you say to touch their head and touch their toes.
  5. Keep practicing until children master Level 3.

Game Level 4– (5+ years): Working on Opposites (Add Knees and Shoulders)

  1. Tell your child that you’re going to play the same game again (Game Level 3), but this time, you’re going to add knees and shoulders to the activity.
  2. Explain to them that when you tell them to touch their knees, they should touch their shoulders instead of touching their knees. 
  3. Next, explain that when you say to touch their shoulders, they should touch their knees.
  4. Repeat all four motions, changing body part instructions, until your child has mastered them.

Talk & Reflect:

After you finish, ask your child questions like:

  • Was it easy or hard to remember what body part to touch?
  • Was it easy or hard when we started doing the opposite of what I said?
  • Was there anything you did to make it easier to remember the rules?

Additional Ideas & Resources:

  • Try using other body parts to increase vocabulary (ie. shins, wrists).
  • Does this activity have you singing the “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” song? If so, share the song with your child!  
  • Would you like your child to further develop their memory and listening skills by following directions? If so, check out the game Under the Sea.
  • For more activities on cognitive flexibility and working memory check out Who is Miss Mary Mack?