Every time he learns something new, your child has to exercise a lot of mental muscles.
Let’s say you’re counting out blueberries for his snack to help him learn numbers. To get anything out of this teachable moment, a lot of stuff needs to happen. For example, your little one has to:
1. Focus on what you’re saying.
2. Make the connection between the concept of “six,” the sound of the word “six,” and the six berries on his plate.
3. Stop himself from eating the blueberries before you finish doling them out.
4. Filter out information he doesn’t need right now (the dog begging for a bite, or the fact that one of the blueberries is extra large).
It’s a big job but one that won’t happen with any regularity until three interrelated brain functions—self-control, working memory, and mental flexibility—join together to produce the executive function and self-regulation kids need for learning. Little ones aren’t born with focus and self-control. But they can develop them with your support in a nurturing environment.
Here, 14 fun ways to foster these skills.
1. Offer up “pretend” activities to promote flexible thinking
Two-year-olds aren’t known for problem solving, but they can take steps toward flexible thinking—and even start enjoying it.
- Dramatic play: Toddlers and young preschoolers can play imaginatively with toy versions of real-world objects, like baby dolls and plastic tools. Bigger kids can start to dream up new uses for toys and household items. A rectangular wooden block becomes a mobile phone, or kitchen tongs morph into a mechanical robot hand. This shows that your child can look at things in new ways, and that’s awesome.
- Shared storytelling: Taking turns telling parts of a story—a well-known tale or brand-new one—requires kids to be open-minded. This is hard! But with patience, you can encourage your child to be OK with a changed detail or an unexpected twist. At bedtime, sneak in a new detail or character. If your child protests, no need to argue; just try again another day.
- Mixed-up matching: Switch up rules governing matching or sorting activities. If your child usually lines up toy vehicles by color, challenge her to do it by type instead (trucks, then cars, then planes). Puzzles, too, require kids to think flexibly: Would this piece fit if I turned it another way? How about if I move it to this other spot?
2. Try follow-the-direction challenges to encourage self-regulation
Think of the difference between a 2- and a 6-year-old playing a game. The 2-year-old will have a much harder time taking turns and following rules than the 6-year-old will. That’s because the older kid has had more time to learn and practice self-control (or in expert speak, “inhibition”). Little ones need lots of help and support when they’re learning this skill. Bigger kids are usually starting to become more independent at it, but you can still practice together with activities like these.
- Cooking: The step-by-step nature of food prep means having to wait! That’s tough for preschoolers, but the short-term rewards are delicious. And the long-term ones are even more important.
- Songs with movements: The wheels on the bus go “round and round”—not “up and down” or “pound pound pound.” To participate in the song, kids need to stop themselves from blurting out the wrong words, or the right words at the wrong time. (Instead of correcting them, just demonstrate the right way and let them try again. They’ll get it!)
- Pretend play: When they’re taking on a pretend role, kids have to change their behavior to match what’s expected in the role. They may also direct you or their friends to play according to their expectations. Regulating others’ behavior can help them regulate their own too.
- Games with rulesand/or turn taking: Whether it’s a board game or a relay race, playing with others means letting them have their turn, and following the same rules as they do. But doing so in the context of a fun game helps sneak in practice, and reminders that taking turns means getting your own turn too.
3. Promote activities that workout working memory
Beyond remembering what they did last week or had for breakfast yesterday, working memory is what allows children to hold important facts, rules, or language in their minds so they can use them when necessary. So, if your child is playing with a toy kitchen, he’s remembering who cooks, what tools they use, what words they might say, and so on. Other ways to build working memory:
- Singing songs, especially those that repeat words and add on, such as “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” or count backward, such as “Five Green and Speckled Frogs” or “Five Little Monkeys.”
- Cooking and crafting: Multi-step processes force kids to keep directions in mind. What happens after you pour in the ingredients, or choose the colors for your painting?
- Outdoor action: At the playground, give your child a challenge such as “Walk to the blue slide and slide down.” It’s a two-step sequence, but one that’s pretty easy to remember. Work up to a longer “obstacle course.” And let your child suggest one to you too. She’ll have to know the steps in order to notice if you make a mistake!
4. Find cool ways to boost listening and attention
This is a biggie for success in school: being able to pay attention and focus on an important task or concept. While young children still have short attention spans, you can work on increasing their ability to focus with these kinds of activities:
- Imitation games: Playing Follow the Leader or Simon Says means watching the leader closely.
- Yoga: Forming, then holding and breathing through a pose helps kids learn to slow down and ignore distractions. Try these kid-friendly postures.
- New physical challenges: Trying to move his body in a different way and master something new (say, hopping on one foot, or even riding a scooter or tricycle) requires concentration. It’s that phase of learning a skill where your child has to think about each step before he does it—he’s not on autopilot yet!
- Counting games: Knowing what comes next means paying attention and keeping track of what’s already happened. The counting and measuring kids use when cooking is also good practice for focus.