Executive Function

Executive Function

Executive function, a term originally used in neuroscience, describes the cognitive abilities to think and control emotions. As young children learn to order their thoughts, process information, remember details, and focus on tasks amid distractions, they are developing their executive function skills. Play activities lead to opportunities for children to learn to wait their turns and control their impulses, which is described as self-regulation, one of the key executive function skills needed for success in daily living.1

There are several cognitive functions that are involved in executive function, and they operate interactively to accomplish a wide variety of tasks:

  • Activation involves organizing and prioritizing thoughts and then acting upon them
  • Focus requires focusing and sustaining thoughts with the ability to shift attention
  • Effort describes pacing of tasks, managing time, and resisting distraction
  • Emotion involves regulating emotions and managing frustration
  • Memory employs utilizing memory and accessing recall
  • Action incorporates self-regulating actions and controlling impulses2

These skills are used for a child to effectively operate in school, at home, and in play. Reading comprehension requires working memory and regulating alertness; writing involves organizing, prioritizing, and sequencing. Playing with other children exercises a child’s self-regulation as he works to control his emotions and impulses.3

A key play activity that develops executive function skills in children is pretend play. Play theorist Lev Vygotsky believed that dramatic play was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves. The rules for make-believe play require children to take roles and stick to them. Working together to continue the pretend play requires cooperation among all players, and if the play is continued for an extended time, there is greater benefit for developing executive function.4

The problem solving that occurs in children’s play promotes social development as children develop friendships and determine in their play such issues as what to play, who can play, when to start and stop, and the rules of engagement. Learning to cooperate and compromise leads to a range of social and emotional capabilities, such as flexibility, self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy.5

The ability of young children to self-regulate their emotional impulses has been shown to be a strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success in life and academically. Some studies have shown that self-regulation skills can predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. However, surveys of young childhood educators have reported that in recent years more children have problems with self-control and following direction.6 Play advocates are concerned that play deprivation in children's lives will result in diminished development of social skills and executive function.

Children with autism, Attention Deficit Disorder, and learning disabilities often display a lack of executive function skills. They may show limited self-control, lack of appropriate restraint, failure to understand future consequences, and addictive behaviors. They also may be easily distracted and lack time management skills.7 However, some researchers believe that executive function skills can be taught, and many children may have been wrongly diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder, who never learned how to exercise self-control.8

  • 1. Tough, Paul. “Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” The New York Times. < http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/magazine/27tools-t.html > 21 Sep. 2011.
  • 2. Stanberry, Kristin. “Executive Function: A new lens for viewing your child.” Great Schools. < http://www.greatschools.org/special-education/health/1017-executive-function-lens-to-view-your-child.gs?page=1 > 21 Sep. 2011.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Op. cit., Tough.
  • 5. Burdette, Hillary L. and Robert C. Whitaker. “Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children.” Children & Nature Network. < http://www.childrenandnature.org/uploads/Burdette_LookingBeyond.pdf > 21 Sep. 2011.
  • 6. Op. cit., Tough.
  • 7. Brodkin, Adele M. “Explaining Executive Function.” Scholastic. < http://www.scholastic.com/resources/article/explaining-executive-function > 21 Sep. 2011.
  • 8. Spiegel, Alix. “Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control.” National Public Radio. < http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=76838288 > 21 Sep. 2011.