Executive functions refer to various organizing and self-regulating behaviors often correlated with maturation of the prefrontal cortex. Executive functions include the ability to organize, develop strategies, and plan. Executive functioning controls working memory, processing speed, cognitive flexibility (seeing another point of view), and inhibition of behavior. Executive Functions are important for school and overall well-being.
Play Therapy for Improved Executive Functions
The good news is executive functions can be improved through specific activities such as play therapy. Research demonstrates that programs with active play components are more successful in improving executive functions. This is due to the importance of early motor learning and the social motivation aspects of learning when movement is involved.
Children participate in activities they love – executive function strategies should use children’s motivation to assist when working to enhance executive function. Programs that address children’s social and emotional development such as yoga and martial arts have been shown to improve executive function. Improvements are seen when children are challenged, moving, and practice consistently.
Purposeful Play Improves Executive Function
One powerful way to strengthen executive function is through play. Play means to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than serious or practical purpose (Oxford Lexicon, 2021). Play has been shown to enhance independence, social skills, creativity, working memory, problem-solving and emotional control, which are all hallmarks of executive function. An evidence-based play approach is the ideal means to develop your child’s executive functions.
Play-Based Strategies to Strengthen Executive Functions
Play a movement game. Games that require attention and quick responses provide children ways to practice attention and inhibition. Red Light Green Light, Freeze Dance and the Floor is Lava are all ways to practice self-control. We give these traditional games a yoga twist by incorporating the aerial hammock and yoga poses, which makes it even harder to maintain attention and impulse control.
Structured physical activities that contain mindfulness and movement such as aerial yoga and Tae Kwon Do, help children develop attention and self-control.
Boardgames, puzzles and even clapping complex rhythms improve working memory and cognitive flexibility.
What Does the Research Say?
Mindful yoga was implemented by a classroom teacher in a yearlong experiment. Treatment and control participants completed evaluations that assessed children’s self-regulation such as attention, delay of gratification and inhibitory control. The treatment group consisted of preschool children ages 3-6 years old. Results indicated significant improvements in the mindful yoga participants across all three areas of self-regulation. Additionally, there was evidence that the children who had the most significant self-regulation dysfunction benefited the most from the intervention.
Robsen et al., 2020, reviewed 150 studies and determined that self-regulation at age 4 is associated with academic performance and school competency. Self-regulation is negatively correlated with internalizing and externalizing problems and criminal behavior. This study suggests that enhancing executive functions early in life is paramount to the ability to efficaciously manage academic and mental health in the future.
Play Therapy and Executive Function
Executive Functions are a set of cognitive processes that help children regulate their behavior. Well-developed executive functions by an early age are identified as a fundamental component of academic and life success. At Mindful Child we have developed games and strategies to enhance executive function both in our aerial yoga classes and in our kid’s therapy.
Our occupational therapists are qualified to treat executive functioning deficits through evidence-based play therapy using the aerial hammock as a playful prop. If you feel like your child needs additional support in this area, please reach out to us for an assessment.
Sandra Shaheen (2014) How Child’s Play Impacts Executive Function–Related Behaviors, Applied Neuropsychology: Child, 3:3, 182-187, DOI: 10.1080/21622965.2013.839612
Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., and Golinkoff, R. M., Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics 142, e20182058. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-2058