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Do You Know What’s Missing?

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

Have ten minutes? Turn magical moments, favorite stories, or household items into meaningful working memory practice!

 

Objective:

This activity challenges children’s working memory and inhibitory control by having them remember a visual array of people, characters, or objects while resisting the temptation to uncover hidden pictures.

Executive Function Skills Practiced:

 

Inhibitory Control:

No peeking! Players have to resist the urge to uncover the hidden objects.

Working Memory:

Your child must keep in mind objects that they just saw to know which ones are missing and which ones have been rearranged.  

Before You Start:

Duration: 10 minutes

Materials List:

  • Family photos

  • Familiar storybook

  • Construction paper

  • Tape

  • Scissors

Environment: 

Enough table or floor space to display images

Ready To Play? Game Levels and Step-by-Step Instructions:

  • The game works well with both individuals and small groups.

  • Choose the right level of play based on your child’s age, then move to a higher level as they build their skills.

 

Game Level 1– Who is Missing? People We Know (2-3 years):

  1. Say something like, “I’m going to show you a picture of our family but someone is missing. Can you tell me who?”

  2. Show a picture of the family with a person missing. If you don’t have a family picture with one person missing, you can also show a series of individual photos and leave one person out. 

  3. If your child struggles with remembering, have them recite names to themselves.

  4. You can vary the difficulty by using a larger group like a class or extended family to make it more challenging or by using verbal cues to make it easier for your child to remember who is missing. 


Game Level 2– Who is Missing? Familiar Characters (3-4 years):

  1. Cover characters in a familiar storybook.

  2. Read the story, revealing covered characters one by one.

  3. Ask your child to remember and identify the missing characters. Say:“Who is supposed to be here?” or “Can you remember who is trip-trapping over the bridge?”

  4. Increase difficulty by hiding more characters.

 

Game Level 3– What is Different? (4-5 years):

  1. Before your child enters the room, remove or change the location of an item. 

    “Do you notice what is missing?” or “What usually goes in this part of the room?”

  2. Ask your child to notice what is missing or changed. Use questions like:“Do you notice what is missing?” or “What usually goes in this part of the room?”

  3. Discuss their observations and guesses.

  4. Repeat, having your child close their eyes while removing an item.

  5. Increase the difficulty by hiding more items.
 

Game Level 4– What is Missing? (5-6 years):

  1. Ask your child to bring some objects to a shared area.

  2. Tell them to close their eyes, remove an item, and have them guess the missing object.

  3. Discuss observations and play multiple rounds. Say things like:“One of the toys is hiding! Can you guess what toy is missing?” and “What did you notice while playing this game?”

  4. Adjust the difficulty by changing the number of objects involved.

 

Game Level 5– Traditional Rules (6+ years):

  1. Pre-select items and lay them out in front of your child.

  2. Instruct them to close their eyes and remove one of the objects from view.

  3. Have your child then identify the missing item.

  4. Encourage silent examination before answering.

  5. Adjust the difficulty by changing the number of items involved.

 

Game Level 6– Rearrange Items (6+ years):

  1. Repeat the previous activity but also rearrange the remaining items.

  2. Instruct your child to identify the missing and rearranged items.

  3. Say “This time, I’m going to move the other things around. 

  4. Can you identify what’s missing and rearranged?”

  5. Discuss observations and play multiple rounds.

 

Talk & Reflect:

Ask your child different questions like:

At the end of each activity, discuss observations and challenges.
Ask open-ended questions about their experience and strategies.
“What was the hardest part of the game for you?”
“What could you try next time we play to help you remember?”
“What strategy did you use to remember the items?”
Model reflection by restating some of your child’s responses.
Encourage waiting for their turn to share ideas.

Additional Ideas & Resources:

  • Use themed items based on the time of year.
  • Incorporate vocabulary and learning labels for new items.
  • Invite older siblings to increase the family photo memory fun!
  • Include various colors and shapes, using blocks for younger children.

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