How Kids’ Play Can Lead to Success — Learning “executive function”

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Yesterday, my two-year-old son and his buddies struck up an impromptu game of tee-ball in the back of our house. My husband was coaching, helping each of them rotate batting while the others ran to the “outfield.” The concept of waiting and sharing was clearly a work in progress: One grabbed the whole tee itself and ran off behind the parked cars every time her turn was up, another picked up a broom and started sweeping leaves in between at-bats. And anytime anyone else in the game made contact with the ball, my son yelled at the top of his lungs, “It’s my turn now!”

But as I watched them, I was still impressed with how their little minds were working on (albeit rough) cooperative play. A year ago this game would have been a hot mess of crying, falling, and wandering off, but now our kids were loosely following rules and paying attention. Really?

The reason we were able to pull off this mini sporting event is that, gradually, these kids are showing signs of what is called “executive function,” a highly advanced set of skills involving impulse control, planning, and abstract thought. Indeed, many scientists and clinicians believe that these capacities are just as important (if not more so) than natural smarts when it comes to achievement.

Delaying gratification, focusing, and imagining future possibilities – it’s not hard to see why these could come in handy. The implications for school and career are clear, but social skills are also on the line (as in the case of the tee-ball game). Luckily for my son and his friends, executive control is not fixed. We practice this ability throughout childhood, and certain types of play give it an especially good workout.

Imagining and Learning to Wait

Consider an extended tea party, a make-believe firehouse emergency, or cooking a stack of pretend blueberry pancakes. Imaginary play is thought to boost executive functioning because it develops our kids’ powers of abstract thought, sticking to and focusing on a pretend world crafted entirely in their heads.

This is different than “free play,” in which kids can choose any activity and switch as often as they want. The kind of play that educators and psychologists say encourages executive function is sustained, elaborate imaginary play where kids make a plan, stay in character (doctor, teacher, sales person), and live in that alternate world for an extended period of time.

Sleep

As adults we know that our brains don’t function at full capacity when we’re sleepless, and this holds true for kids as well. A 2009 study published in the journal Sleep tracked sets of twins from ages 4 to 16 and found that those with difficulty catching z’s later in childhood struggled more with executive function. That same month, another study found that less sleep (and decreased time in the REM stage) was associated with ADHD.

The Denver-based Tools of the Mind program (profiled in the book NurtureShock) uses this kind of play, and there is reason to think kids benefit. A 2007 study in the journal Science randomly assigned teachers and preschoolers to the Tools of the Mind curriculum and another developed by the school district. They found that the kids in the Tools program showed dramatically better executive functioning after only one year.

Some also say that activities like Memory (remembering images on face-down cards) or simple hide-and-seek games challenge kids to hold information in their heads that they can’t immediately see, and control impulses while they strategize.

Researchers like Walter Mischel (of the famous marshmallow experiment) recommend injecting delayed gratification into daily life: For babies this might be the 30 seconds they have to wait while a meal is prepped or, for older kids, understanding how to save allowance money. The idea is for us to help our kids have a plan for the future (which could be five minutes away), and control their immediate whims while they work on getting there.

Follow Your Child

You don’t need to force your child into an imaginary apron and make sure she stays on task in the play kitchen. By the time they are in preschool, most kids have a good attention span for the activities they love. And to me, exploring what they “love” is the key – finding time for kids to follow their own interests, not always a parent or teacher’s agenda. We want our kids to be “in the zone” – that excited, motivated place where the rest of the world falls away and the clock isn’t ticking. (Think about how much more focused and productive you feel when you are genuinely engrossed in something.)

I love watching my son while he’s diligently building a recycling center out of Legos – shouting orders, backing up the truck, dumping the cans, and starting over – because I know that feeling (for me it’s while I’m working on a craft project or sifting through research for a column). I feel pretty certain that while he’s managing his sanitation facility, he’s also flexing his ability to focus and explore something he really cares about. I don’t need to drill him on numbers and colors; I just need to step back and follow his lead. Eventually his ability to plan and concentrate (and maybe play a more civil game of tee-ball) will follow.

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