This activity encourages children to focus their attention to recall details from books and to think flexibly about books that they are reading.
- Cognitive Flexibility
- Working Memory
Observe & Respond
If your child has trouble sitting through the whole book, it’s OK to take a break and come back to finish later.
If your child has trouble solving your questions, then try giving more direct clues and hints.
Game Level 1 – I Spy
Choose a book from your collection, and have children join you in an out-of-the-way spot where they can focus on your instructions and the activity. Tell them:
“We are going to look at this book together!” Begin to read the book. Stop on a page of your choosing and say “Oh! I see something green! Do you see something green on this page? Point to it so I know what green thing you are thinking about.”
Give the child time to follow your instructions. Then say, Can you find something ELSE that is green? You’re right.
Those things are BOTH green. They have the same color, but are different! Can you think of something else that is green?”
Adapt this activity to the books that are available to you. Ask children to find things according to rules they understand (colors, shapes, familiar characters, etc.).
Game Level 2 – What’s Hiding? – Familiar Book
Choose a book that your children are very familiar with. This time, before you sit down together, tape pieces of paper over a few important characters or objects. Tell them:
“We are going to look at this book together!” Begin to read the book. Stop at the first page with a hidden picture and say “Oh! I see something hiding! Do you remember who/what we usually see on this page? Can you tell me?” Give the child time to follow your instructions. Then say, “You remembered that [item] was hiding on this page! Great job!” Remove the piece of paper and continue reading the book.
Adapt this activity to the books that are available to you. If children are having trouble remembering what is hidden, give them simple clues to help them succeed
Game Level 3 – What’s Hiding? – New Book
This time choose a book that the child is NOT very familiar with. Before you sit down together, tape pieces of paper over a few important characters or objects. In the example below they are reading a book about animals. Tell them:
“We are going to look at this book together!” Begin to read the book. Stop at the first page with a hidden picture and say “Oh! I see something hiding! I will give you a clue so that you can solve this mystery. There is an (example: ANIMAL WITH GREEN SCALES) hiding on this page. Can you think of an animal that has green scales?” Give the child time to follow your instructions and make a guess.
If they guess correctly, extend their thinking by asking: How did you know that a snake was hiding on this page? What clues did you see or hear that helped you guess the right answer?
If they guess incorrectly, support their flexible thinking skills by saying: Crocodile is a really good guess! You remembered that crocodiles
Adapt this activity to the books that are available to you. If children are having trouble answering correctly, continue to give them clues that lead them to the correct answer.
Game Level 4 – Why and What If?
Choose a book from your collection and have children join you in an out-of-the-way spot where they can focus on your instructions and the activity. As you read through the book with the children, choose places to stop and talk about what is happening in the story. In the example below they are reading Puff the Magic Dragon.
“The words say, ‘Jackie Paper came no more.’” I wonder why Jackie stopped coming to play with Puff. Why do you think he stopped coming?”
“How do you think Puff is feeling on this page? How can you tell?”
“What is something that might make Puff feel better?” “What if Puff had other dragon friends to play with? How would the story be different?”
Adapt this activity to the books that are available to you. Look for places to ask your child about why characters are doing/saying things or feeling a certain way.
For older children, have them imagine different endings to the story and encourage them to create their own alternative story books.
Talk & Reflect
At the end of each activity, take a moment to talk with children about what they noticed: what was difficult, what strategies did they come up with, what could they try next time?
“Was it easy to tell how the characters were feeling?”
“What strategies did you use to guess how Puff was feeling? How did you come up with that reason for why he might be sad?”
Model reflection by restating some of the children’s responses:
“You remembered feeling sad when you had nobody to play with, and you thought that Puff might be feeling the same way.”
“You noticed that Puff was crying, and you guessed that he might be feeling sad. You remembered that crying is one way people let you know that they are sad.”
Additional Ideas and Resources
- Try the activity at different times of the day (morning, midday, A+ Curricular Integration afternoon).
- This activity can easy be adapted to reflect the books that you have at home.
- For older children, have them create a “sequel” by imagining what might happen next and writing a story that involves the same characters. Have them plan out the beginning, middle, and end of their story.
Making the Most of the Activities
Both practical and playful, The EF Way to PLAY! features Executive Function activities based on familiar childhood games that have been enhanced to promote the improvement of Executive Function skills in children. Developed collectively by expert researchers on Executive Function, educators, and parents, these fun intervention activities promote social emotional learning (SEL), mindfulness, and self-regulation.
The Use of Familiar, Traditional Games
During the Preschool years, children are developing an interest in games that have rules as well as “silly” instructions. Who knew that the games we have been playing since we were children have been developing Executive Function skills?! Using games that parents and children are already familiar with is a great way to integrate Executive Function skills into an already busy day.
Research has shown that one of the best ways to improve Executive Function skills in children is through games, in part because play increases joy and reduces toxic stress (the enemy of Executive Function!). Another key to developing Executive Function skills is to choose games that are challenging but not too hard for each child (i.e., in the zone of proximal development). The activities in this guide are designed to increase in challenge level over time. You will move through more challenging levels with children, and we recommend that you track progress through your observations.
Remember – practice, practice, practice! Skills require practice – lots of practice – and they need to be maintained. We recommend 15 minutes per day, or approximately two activities. Repeat activities as long as children are enjoying them and are moderately challenged by them. Children develop their Executive Function skills by using them.
Choosing a Starting Level
To make the most of these activities, you will want to begin at a level that is moderately challenging and work your way up as children improve. On the first page of each activity, you will see the recommended starting level of the game based on your child’s age. For example, if the youngest child playing is 2 years old, you would start at Level 1. This is simply a guideline to align the assessment and activities. If you find that your child is not able to do the lowest level, or is already able to do the highest level, you can try some of the extra modifications recommended, or design your own. What if some children are really good at the game whereas others are really struggling? Of course, you can expect to see individual differences in any group of children. For individual children, you can do more personalized starting levels. For small groups, we suggest trying the lower level in this case to meet the younger children where they are, as the extra practice will help (and will still be fun!) even for the older children.
Planning for Activities
- Group Size (individual or small).
Depending on the needs of your children and the setup of your home environment, you can do the activities in small groups (1-3) or individually. Remember that younger or older siblings might want to join in; it is fine to adjust the difficulty level accordingly.
- Time of Day.
Children need predictable routines to thrive, so when first introducing an activity, you might want to do it at the same time of day. However, once they are familiar with it, shifting the time of day (morning, after lunch, or late afternoon) can help build cognitive flexibility and add to a child’s ability to adapt more easily. Changing things up can be a good thing!
Adding variety through location is a good way to work on Executive Function skills. Using the living room, playroom, bedroom, or taking kids outside can help promote the neurocognitive development children need to be flexible.
- Minimizing Distractions.
Think of all the little things that can be distracting to some children. Plan activities knowing that their attention spans are not the same as yours. Be aware of scheduling around nap and snack times. A hungry, tired child will not perform as well.
- Scripting Playtime.
You know how important it is to be very clear with your instructions! Most of the activities in this guide include small scripts and repetitive words like “silly” and “grumpy” to help you stay consistent and help your children easily and quickly understand what to do. It doesn’t hurt that they also make explaining each game’s directions a no-brainer for you!
- Use What You Have.
Remember all those old puzzles and games you have collecting dust in some closet? Pull those out, polish them up, and introduce them as new. Familiar games can feel like new again when you play them with an EF “twist.” Dig through kitchen cabinets and junk drawers – they’re packed full of trinkets. Children are quick to pretend and make up ideas for how to play with “junk”.
- Be Aware of Stressful Times.
Large life events are not only stressful for you, but they also are stressful for young children who respond to your feelings and voice tones. Using mindfulness activities can reduce this for both you and your child.
- Help “just enough”.
In general, you can continually challenge children’s Executive Function skills by providing them with age-appropriate support during problem solving, like nudging the correct piece of a puzzle into a young child’s view so that the child can “discover” it herself. This type of support (just enough, not too much) helps children develop a sense of autonomy — it keeps them appropriately challenged and motivated to solve problems on their own in the future.
- Mix it Up.
Lessons are most likely to “stick” and transfer to other skills if you vary the activities and try them at different times of the day and changing locations. Try your house, the yard, and the neighborhood playground.
- Join In!
Everyone needs to play sometime! There’s nothing more enjoyable for a child than parents joining in the fun. Bring back the inner child in yourself and join the game. By modeling the fun and learning, children will play longer and learn more.
The most important aspect of learning and improving Executive Function is self- reflection. Here’s a simple principle to remember: When we help children reflect on their thoughts, actions, and feelings, they will have more control over their thoughts, actions, and feelings. Be sure to build in “end-time” so children can practice self-talk and you can be a model for them!
At the end of each activity, there are suggestions for reflective talk. Take a moment to talk with children about what they noticed about the activity — what was difficult; what strategies they came up with to be successful; what could they try next time. This reflection will help with Executive Function development. It is also possible that these games are challenging for you, too! Model reflection by sharing how it felt for you.