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Building Memory, Thinking, and Self-Control Skills

Memory, thinking and self-control are three basic skills that people use every day. Together, these are called executive function skills. Young children need help to develop these skills as part of healthy brain development.

There are three main categories of executive function skills:

  1. Working memory skills help a child retain information and use it to answer questions.
  2. Flexible thinking skills help a child find relationships between different ideas.
  3. Self-control skills help a child regulate emotions and keep from acting impulsively.

Activities for 18-month-olds to 3-year-olds

Toddlers rapidly expand their language skills, which are important in the development of executive functioning. Language helps children understand and follow increasingly complex rules. These rules regulate behavior and apply to simple games. Language also helps children remember things and ideas. Below are some activities you can do every day with children ages 18 months to 3 years, to encourage executive function skills development.

Active games

  • These activities require toddlers to focus and pay attention to a goal, and limit unnecessary actions. They also learn to try things in new ways if a first attempt fails. Frequent reminders from adults may be needed.
  • Throw and catch a ball, walk a balance beam, run up and down an incline, jump, or set up games with simple rules to follow like running to a “finish line.” Try games that encourage children to think about what’s happening and to stop when they need to, like freeze dance, “Ring Around the Rosie,” or “Motorboat, Motorboat.”
  • Songs with movements require children to pay attention to the words, remember them, and use the song to guide their actions. Examples include “The Hokey Pokey,” “I’m a Little Teapot,” “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Where is Thumkin.”

Conversation, storytelling and emotional regulation

  • Watch and talk about what the toddler is doing. As toddlers get older, add questions, such as “What will you do next?”
  • Tell stories about things you do together, such as grocery shopping. As the toddler remembers the experience, he or she will consider the order of how things happened and why things happened the way they did.
  • Label your toddler’s feelings as you notice them – for example, “It looks like you are really angry right now.” Give children language to reflect on their feelings. This supports the development of emotional regulation.

Matching and sorting games

These games require toddlers to understand the rules that organize the activity, hold the rules in mind and follow them. Ask children to sort objects by size, shape or color, or play with simple puzzles. Adults can ask children to think about what shape or color they need, where they might put a certain puzzle piece, or where they might put the piece if it doesn’t fit. This develops the child’s reflection and planning skills.

Imaginary play

Have toddlers imitate actions using objects available, such as sweeping with a broom or pretending to cook with a pot. Provide a variety of familiar household objects, toys and clothing items. Ask questions about what they are doing and narrate the things you see happening. Play along with the toddler and let the toddler direct the play.

For more ideas to encourage healthy development, visit www.helpmegrowmn.org.

Information for this article was adapted from Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014), Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
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