Executive functions are the skills that allow us self-regulation, problem solving, attention, organization, and management of different aspects of our lives. These important skills begin to develop in childhood and continue to develop into adulthood. The following activities can be done in the home or school environment to allow school-age students to practice using different executive function skills in a fun and non-consequential way.
Five Activities to Practice with your Children to Enhance their Problem Solving Skills:
Activities that involve paying close attention to the task at hand
Going for a nature walk and talking about different things that were experienced using all of the senses, i.e. the smell of pine needles, sunlight reflecting off a pond.
Card games such as “War” or “Snap” where you must pay close attention to the suit or number of the card being laid down.
Copying games that have a mild consequence if a child doesn’t pay attention to all of the details or instructions i.e. have to sit out of the game until the next round or get the message wrong. This can increase the motivation to pay attention and provides some friendly competition.
Red light/Green light
What time is it Mr. Wolf?
Memory or matching games
Have 5-10 objects on a tray and take one away. Child has to remember which object is missing.
Work on projects that take a longer time to complete.
A scrapbook that you add to at different times during the year
Crafts with sub- parts that need to be completed on different days i.e. paper mache
Practice categorization activities i.e. 20-questions or “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…” games.
Discuss any pre-existing organizing skills
Do you use an agenda?
Do you organize the food you are going to eat first on your plate i.e. meat first then vegetables
Look through the kitchen cupboards and see if you can figure out the organization pattern
Ask questions about things that are already organized systematically (For younger students: by color, size, shape etc. For older students: chapters in a book, the periodic table or colours of a rainbow).
If you could only take two stuffed animals/toys with you on a trip, how do you choose? This can also be done with clothing, books or movies depending on individual interest.
If your two favorite TV shows are coming on at the same time, how do you choose which one you will watch?
You have half a day at Canada’s Wonderland/The Toronto Zoo etc. (i.e. not enough time to do/see everything), how do you figure out how you will spend your time?
These sorts of questions can also be applied to real life events to make them more functional rather than hypothetical. Maybe when shopping for a new outfit, you have limited time and can only visit 3 stores, work together to figure out how to best prioritize where you will go.
In these games, the decisions that are made have an immediate or relatively short term cause and effect. Making one decision over another can impact an individual’s success (i.e. the tower falls, or your competitor wins). In can be helpful to review the decisions after the outcome and talk about what could have been done differently to get a different/better outcome.
Games that involve a long or short term strategy
Capture the Flag
Guess the number of various things (e.g. jelly beans in a jar, toy cars, pencils, spoons in the dishwasher)
You can always talk about the different strategies that were used to make the guess. Which one was the most effective? Would it work a second time?
Let your child make some functional estimations
How much pasta will we need to feed the whole family?
Should we make 1 or 2 bags of popcorn for the movies?
How many pairs of socks should you pack for a weekend trip?
Talk about the differences in different common events around the world i.e. how Christmas is celebrated or differences in common songs (ex. In Canada it is the “Hokey Pokey” and in the U.K. it is the “Hokey Kokey.”)
Read stories and then talk about it them from the viewpoints of various characters or alternative endings.
Talk about “what if” scenarios and work through the endings (can be fictional SPOILER ALERT i.e. “what if Dumbledore didn’t die in Harry Potter?” or factual “what if you went to the French Immersion school instead of the English one?”
Show pictures that go against “typical” stereotypes i.e. a man putting on make-up or a Paralympic athlete. Talk about the first impressions and how they can be incorrect once we give it more thought.
Freeze game: have students do some impromptu acting then have someone yell “freeze”. The actors stay in position, frozen and new people come in to replace them but have to take the scene in a different direction.
Using thoughtful activities such as these can not only target different executive function skills, but can also add some intent and purpose to games. This can help increase motivation and participation in a non-demanding way. Most importantly have fun while learning new problem solving skills!
Emily Merritt is a Registered Speech and Language Pathologist with the College of Audiologists and Speech Language Pathologists of Ontario as well as Speech-Language & Audiology Canada. She graduated from Dalhousie University with a Masters of Science in Speech and Language Pathology following the completion of an Honours Bachelor Degree in Music Cognition from McMaster University