Activities and Games for Developing Executive Function

Executive Function

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Executive Functions help children succeed academically and in life. It is a better predictor of success than IQ. So I’ve been thinking a little harder about ways to help the children improve these skills.

There is an old proverb often mistakenly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but it goes like this: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Include me and I will learn.” The true source of this quote comes from this ancient Chinese proverb:

不闻不若闻之, 闻之不若见之, 见之不若知之, 知之不若行之

Not having heard something is not as good as having heard it; having heard it is not as good as having seen it; having seen it is not as good as knowing it; knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.

– Ruxiao

We can offer our children tactics and advice, and drill them endlessly on the dos and don’ts, but I believe that nothing works quite as well as a real experience. So I’ve been thinking – what activities can we offer our children that will put into practice their executive functions? Here are some ideas, I’ve borrowed

Card Games

I remember playing many of these games as a child using only a simple deck of playing cards. For example, Uno was played with the 2s for “pick up 2”, the 7s as “reverse”, and the aces as “skip”. In Old Maid, we used a joker to replace the old maid card.

  • Concentration also known as Memory
  • Go Fish
  • Happy Families
  • Old Maid
  • Uno
  • Crazy Eights
  • Snap!
  • Hearts – this was available as a microsoft game but we used to play during our breaks in Uni.
  • Bridge – I read so much about this in Agatha Christie’s novels, that I was determined to learn how to play the game. I never got very good at it but it sure was fun.
  • Poker
  • Spit
  • Big 2 – I learned this one in Uni and we played it a lot back then, too. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the rules are here.

We also play Boggle Slam, Clue: Suspect, Angry Birds (the card game).

Board Games

Basically, any game that uses working memory, matching details, fast responses, and strategy will do the trick. These are some popular suggestions:

We’ve been going to Borders to check out their broad range of interesting games I’d never heard of before to add to our growing collection:

  • Rumis – a good game for developing spatial awareness as well.
  • Risk – a strategy game that will also be a good lesson in statistics
  • Munchkin – a stepping stone into Dungeons and Dragons for the younger kids. It’s intended for age 10 and up but we simplified the rules for G2.
  • Mastermind
  • Blokus – a strategy game that also helps with logic and spatial awareness
  • Snake Lake – avoid the mushrooms and get the apples before your opponents do.
  • Squabble – a variation on scrabble using the letter tiles from scrabble
  • Game of Life – probably not as

More board games to consider:

Physical Games

Many of us should remember these games from our childhood…

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Organised sports

Any sports that combines a physical element with a mental element is a good choice for developing the executive functions. For instance:

  • Soccer – exercise that requires thinking (this includes other team sports, like basketball, hockey, netball, etc.)
  • Traditional Martial Arts – exercise that includes character development
  • Yoga – exercise that includes mindfulness

Mindfulness and Meditation

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Meditation enhances executive control and improves self-regulation. In a study investigating the effects of meditation practice on executive control, the meditation group showed greater executive control and more emotional acceptance.

Helping young children with meditation can be tricky, especially if they’re the kind of kids that need to move a lot. One recommendation is to do the walking meditation:

  1. Plan ahead for a 5 minute walking meditation.
  2. Establish it as a routine so it is expected every time you go for a walk.
  3. Meditation starts with a “gong” – either have a child make the sound, or use a recorded one.
  4. Everyone becomes quiet and gives full attention to the sensation of walking.
  5. End the meditation with the “gong”.

There are many variations to the walking meditation you can try. You can also try this one for an indoor day:

  • Give each child a set of jingle bells.
  • Set a timer for a few minutes.
  • Have the children walk in a circle with the bell trying not to let the bells make a sound.

More resources for mindfulness and meditation:


The older we grow, the more we forget the importance of playing. Play, especially the imaginary/pretend kind, is a key component of Vygotsky’s Tools of the Mind, which has been credited for helping children develop self-control (one of the executive functions).

  • Playground – for younger children, any playground play that develops their physical skills, like balance, coordination, climbing, etc. helps with the development of the executive functions.
  • Imaginary/Pretend – children learn a lot through this kind of play because it requires them to take on the role of another person or character and inhibit their own natural responses as they assume that role.
Executive Function Activities

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Drama, Music and Dancing

  • Drama and Theater is an extension of imaginary/pretend play that increases the stakes with an audience being invovled.
  • Singing acapella style or in a choir are two terrific exercises in inhibition because children need to focus on their own parts and not be distracted by the others who are singing a different part. This is especially tricky when they do not have the melody line.
  • Learning to play an instrument and playing as part of a group.
  • Dancing – the structured kind where the dancers are required to hold the choreography in their minds as they move in time with the music.

Story Telling

Story telling is a great activity to help young children develop their executive functions.

Check out: Writing resources to encourage the reluctant writer.


Cooking is another great activity for young children because they need to use working memory to follow the instructions, focus their attention when measuring and counting.

Brain Games

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