Executive Function: What it is, what it does, and why your kids don’t have it (yet)

Have you ever been in the checkout line when it hits you—Milk!—and you have to haul it to the dairy aisle and back before it’s too late?

That’s your working memory saving you from another trip to the store. Working memory is just one component of executive function—which is a fancy term for the ability to focus, plan, remember, and have self-control.

Executive function consists of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control—skills that help us make plans, manage time, resist temptation, and remember the milk.

However, these are not skills we’re born with.

Executive function skills develop over time, which means that little ones under the age of three are learning them, practicing them, or don’t have them at all.

But whether you’re a little one just learning or an experienced adult, nothing derails executive function skills quite like stress. And what’s more stressful than the Holidays? It’s hard enough for us grown-ups to keep our executive function skills on track this time of year—let alone our kids who are just starting to develop those skills.

Here are some tips to help you relieve your frustration and give your brain (and your kid’s!) a helping hand.

Make a list…check it twice.

Make all the lists. You can never have too many. Even if you forget the list at home, you will have the tactile memory of writing each item. However, remember the list.

You can also ask your kids to help remember the grocery list—it makes them feel involved, helps build their working memory skills, and might even save you a last minute dash from the checkout line.

Let the little ones help.

Kids can be a massive help in the kitchen, when they are given tasks that match their skill level.  Take it from my personal experience: Thanksgiving is NOT the time to start knife training—that is unless you fancy extensive urgent care lines.

Here are some tasks that all kids can help with that will give you a hand AND help them develop some executive function skills of their own:

  • Washing fruits and veggies
  • Mashing the potatoes
  • Measuring ingredients (think of the math!)
  • Making place settings
  • Setting the table
  • Cleaning up

Summon your executive function.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that stress is messing with you—and your executive function. Now that you know what those skills are and what they do, you can take a step back from the stress and remind yourself that you’re an expert. And if you feel your patience wearing thin, remember that your kids are still learning.


Now, go get that shopping done.


Fun Facts for Your Next Play Group: Handling Holiday stress

On October 31st I had the fright of my life. It was a fall day like any other: Leaves were changing, wind was blowing, children walked blissfully in their Halloween costumes. Then it happened—a sight so scary I nearly fell off my bike…

People were putting up holiday decorations.

I was immediately struck with panic. A series of questions rushed through my brain: What day is it? Did I miss the Tofurkey? Have I been abducted by aliens?

I went from the excitement of candy to the fear that I didn’t have my holiday shopping complete. I know I am not alone in this. The time-warp between Halloween and Christmas is maddening. It’s stressful, and your kids are picking up on it. 

A massive part of your little one’s development is social emotional, and the strategies you provide your little one with to handle stress are more valuable than any king-size candy bar.

Here are some quick tips to help you and your family destress this holiday season.

Stick to a routine.

Kids thrive under a steady routine. Try your best to stick to nap and bedtimes. While sticking to a schedule maybe hard this time of year, it is WAY easier than trying to reestablish post-holiday crazy.

Maybe don’t eat all the cookies.

It is easy to give treats during the holiday season. Pies, cookies, cakes—no matter where you look there’s temptation…for you and your kiddo. While you are welcomed to get your sugar high on, make it a sometimes treat for the kids. Random tip, if your kids discover the frosting container in the fridge you can level out the sugar crazies with water. That being said, keep your kids hydrated.

Just say no.

It’s okay to say no. Are you invited to another holiday party, a cookie swap, another playdate? Before you say yes, take a moment and be realistic with yourself. Do you or your child honestly have the time or energy to attend? Remember your friends are just as crazy busy and stressed as you are. If you say no, they will understand.

Forget perfection.

Not every year has to be a Martha Stewart year. Did you forget something? Burn something? Did the children already destroy their holiday clothes? It happens. What matters is how you handle it. Take a deep breath…take 10 deep breaths. Remind yourself that this is a moment and it too shall pass.

My final little tip is to live in the day. I am the biggest “tomorrow” person. I am constantly thinking about what I have to do tomorrow, the next day, the next week. I do this so often that I tend to miss the amazing moments that happen around me. So although the holiday decorations are up, remind yourself that it is November and relax.



Fun Facts (for Your Next Playgroup): Bed time drama

Ah, sleep—what most adults wouldn’t do for a few extra hours a night. Kids, on the other hand, are a completely different story. However, if they only knew what I know about the wonders of sleep they may change their tune.

Here are some fun facts that you can pull out next time your little is putting up a fuss about bedtime.


During sleep, your brain grows!

Early childhood is the time when the brain develops the most—and the amount of fuel required to support children’s healthy brain development is crazy. Think of it this way: The average five-year-old weighs 44 pounds and takes in about 860 calories a day—and HALF of that caloric energy goes straight to their brain while your little one is resting.


Sleep makes you smarter!

When your little one is resting, they are subconsciously processing their ENTIRE DAY! During sleep children sort and store new information and prune data they no longer need. When your kiddo is working on insufficient amounts of sleep, you may notice that they often have difficultly accessing, processing and storing new skills.


As you sleep, you grow taller and stronger!

Has your child ever woken up and you could swear they were taller? Well, it’s not the lack of coffee playing tricks on you. Your little ones do most of their growing while asleep. This is because our growth hormones are primarily active while we’re sleeping. Sleep is also a time for cells to rejuvenate and muscles to rebuild.


So how much sleep should your little one be getting? Most experts agree that 10 hours is best. Also, your kiddo should be hitting the hay before 9 pm. Sleep studies have shown that children who fall asleep before 9 pm fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer and wake up happier. Yep…it’s a win-win all around!

Talking to kids about social injustice and discrimination

As a cultural institution and a place for children, Chicago Children’s Museum is constantly thinking about how kids understand and interact with the world around them, and how that world impacts them. Kids’ ears can pick up bits and pieces of the most complicated conversations, which in turn can prompt adult-sized questions.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these conversations can bring up questions and concerns about discrimination and fairness, and it can be challenging to know the best ways to tackle it with your kids.

We’ve put together some ideas for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with children of all ages about issues of equality and diversity, and how to get those conversations started.


Teach them empathy.

Being able to empathize with others who are treated unfairly is an early step in understanding the damage that is done by discrimination and inequality. However, kids need to learn empathy—we’re not born with it. Parents and caregivers need to talk about what it means to empathize, encourage their kids to work toward it, and model it themselves.

Sometimes books can be great discussion tools. Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry is a great story to kick off conversations about empathy.


Relate larger issues to their smaller worlds.

Children may not be able to understand the details of civil rights, but they can understand why it isn’t fair to cut in line for the playground slide. Kindness and fairness are ideas that kids understand and relate to very early on. Show kids that their worlds and the world around them are related.

The book What Does It Mean To Be Kind by Rana DiOrio talks about kindness in a world that kids understand: the classroom.


Help them explore difference—without generalizing.

We ask kids to point out which block is red and which block is blue, but when it comes to people, we insist we’re all the same. Kids notice differences—be honest and encourage them to explore those differences in positive ways.

The book The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (and published by Chicago Children’s Museum) teaches kids to not only acknowledge difference, but to celebrate it too.


Hold yourself accountable—but not to the level of perfection.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our own biases, and children hear what we say and take it all in. Avoid speaking in generalizations about other people and question others when they do so. If you do speak unfairly about a person or group, openly acknowledge the mistake.


Continue the conversation—but avoid oversharing.

Listen carefully to children’s questions and take cues about what they want to talk about. As adults, we have a tendency to provide too many details and concepts that may well be beyond their comprehension. Try using open-ended questions like “What are you curious about?” to get to the heart of their concerns. Then you can help them find more information about what they would like to know. And if you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can always turn to books like the ones we listed above.


Talking about prejudice and discrimination is not something we can check off a list—it’s an ongoing conversation. Help your children see the world through a lens of compassion and kindness throughout their childhoods that will last well into their adult lives.

What are they laughing at? LOL 101 for Grownups

There’s a lot of learning going on when little ones are laughing. Here are some tips for engaging children in silly behavior at each developmental stage.

Laugh.Shack.2014a.9844-1.300d.RGB1.  Babies and Toddlers love surprises!
These little guys are learning a lot about how the world around them works, so unexpected actions can really crack them up.

Put a shoe on your head.
Quack like a duck.
Make funny faces.
Gently tickle tummies or chins.

Caregiver Tip: Tricks that bring giggles one time may bring tears the next. Be sensitive; babies get overloaded, and toddlers are a tough crowd.

2.  Preschoolers love nonsense!
Three- and four-year-olds are starting to see that jokes follow a format. To you, their punch lines might seem to need a little work, but they find them utterly hilarious!

“Knock knock,”
“Who’s there?”
“Spaghetti monster! Ha ha ha!”

Caregiver Tip: Super-silly stories and taboo topics (like potty humor) are also big at this age. Hang in there, parents!  Most outgrow this by age 20.

3.  Ages 5 – 7 love MAKING SENSE.
They’re learning the twists and turns of language and understanding the double meaning of words in riddles and puns:

Toy store sign: “Don’t feed the animals, they’re already stuffed.”

Caregiver Tip: Get used to hearing the same old joke! Young comics must hone their timing and delivery skills.

4. Ages 8 – 9 love SOCIAL HUMOR.
At this age, they’re having fun sharing humor with friends. They especially enjoy looonger jokes, funny books and videos, quick and witty comebacks, and, oh joy, sarcasm.

Caregiver Tip: Help children understand that hurtful and demeaning humor is never okay.

Through Labor Day, hone your funny bone and get seriously silly at the Laugh Shack, Chicago Children’s Museum’s pop-up comedy club just for kids!

Why Danger?

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Kids just don’t have enough “good danger” in their lives these days.

No, really…Hear us out!

Think back to your childhood… What are your strongest play memories? Often, when we at Chicago Children’s Museum ask adults how they played as children, the things they recall most vividly were a bit risky. They climbed trees—or rooftops—and played in alleys. They experimented with tools and took things apart.  They launched things into the air, demolished things, melted things, and (maybe, just maybe) created some minor explosions. Why? Well, because they were curious!

From these experiences, they learned. There were minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but, oh, were there also revelations!

Encountering risky, seemingly dangerous situations provide children some of their greatest and most important learning opportunities. From interactions with hot, sharp, breakable, fragile, high up or otherwise strange things, we develop new understandings about the ways of the world. We grasp why some things really are dangerous (to ourselves or others) and how to be safe.  We learn about our own abilities and sensibilities.

As Gever Tulley, author of Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, says, “While there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger.”

Yes, exploring what is dangerous presents a prime opportunity for children to learn safety and responsibility.  It is also a natural motivator for learning in general. Danger is exciting; therefore, we pay attention.  You can bet that a child who learns about chemistry by creating an explosion is going to remember it far longer than the child who reads about it in a book. The “risk” aspect makes the experience stick.

Here are a few key ways adults can support “good” danger:

Ensure that children have opportunities to take risks that are developmentally appropriate.  For an eight-year-old, using a sharp tool or experimenting with heat could present an appropriate level of risk.  For a six-year-old, swinging on a rope swing might be just the right challenge. For a toddler, exploring a new material or attempting to walk over an uneven terrain may be a healthy risk. Children naturally want to push the limits of their abilities; it’s up to us, as adults, to help them find the right opportunities.

Provide time, space and support. While some “risky” activities require adult supervision (learning to light a campfire for the first time), others are best left for children to explore on their own (taking a leap from the monkeybars). If the worst that can happen is a cut, scrape, bruise, or even a sprained ankle, give children the freedom to do it on their own. Remember, you learned some of your best “lessons” when adults weren’t even looking!

Take comfort in the knowledge that “dangerous” activities help children flourish. Exploring fire, water and other physical phenomena, and using real tools and machines acquaint children with how the world really works. Nothing beats first-hand experience for learning how objects are engineered, why heat transforms water into vapor, what it’s like to drill a hole. Such “risky” physical behaviors as climbing, swinging or jumping from high places build strength, dexterity and self-confidence. Non-physical risks—performing in front of an audience or standing up for a principle—are similarly important learning opportunities. In each situation, children are developing critical cognitive and social-emotional skills: assessing risks, grasping consequences, practicing self-control, taking responsibility.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

So go ahead… Take the leap.  Make it blow.  Melt it down. Launch it. Watch it burn.  We’re learning here!

Thankful Cards

The Thanksgiving season is upon us and we want to know, who are you thankful for? In the Kraft Artabounds Studio, visitors have been creating one-of-a-kind cards to show how much they care about the special people in their lives.


How do you and your family give thanks?


Join us in the studio this week to design your own card. Be sure to check our calendar for studio hours. We look forward to seeing you here!

Creative Costume Ideas for Halloween

Rachel Weaver Rivera, former Arts Learning Coordinator at Chicago Children’s Museum


What’s wrong with store-bought wizard hats and plastic princess masks? Nothing, except that they come from the land of bland, and Halloween is certainly not one of those ho-hum holidays. If you really want to spark your child’s imagination this year, try some creative costume-making tricks and treats. Simply follow these rules:

Save Stuff
Old belts, neckties, jewelry, sports equipment, scarves, eyeglasses, stuffed animals, and purses make wonderful accessories. Fabric remnants are perfect for head wraps, capes, wings, bandages or poncho-style gowns and caveman garb. Discarded headbands are great for gluing on ears, taping on sparkly tin foil tiaras or attaching pipe cleaner antennas. Two toilet paper tubes glued together makes an excellent pair of binoculars, and paper towel rolls colored black can accommodate any pirate in need of a telescope.


Let your kids paint their own face! In addition to being less of a safety hazard than a vision-obscuring, cumbersome mask, a painted face allows children to clearly see and appreciate the transformation of their own features. For the most successful face painting, set up a make-believe “make up” station with a mirror, small brushes, Q-tips, paper towels, cold cream and water. And don’t forget that face paint looks great on more than just the face. Use it to turn the backs of hands alien-green or decorate arms with creeping spiders.

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Labor Day Weekend!

School may have started for some kids, but there is still time to enjoy the last days of summer this Labor Day weekend! Chicago Children’s Museum will be open all weekend long, Monday too! Join us for fun programs like:




Pec Pets

and The Laugh Shack‘s LIVE OPEN MIC!
This is the final weekend for The Laugh Shack! You won’t want to miss it!

IMG_9905Please note, the museum will be closed after Labor Day Monday (September 3 – 6, 2013) for improvements. See you this weekend!

Our Staff’s Summer Picks for Play!

CCM Staff

We asked Chicago Children’s Museum’s staff:

What was your favorite thing to do in the summer as a kid?

Shoot marbles, jump double dutch, ride bikes and play basketball.
– Toni, Manager of Guest Services

We had a treehouse in my backyard that my brothers and the boys in our neighborhood built, and I would climb inside and eat corn flakes with my dolls.
– Diane, Community Programs Manager

We didn’t have to cross any busy streets to get to our local pool, so we would walk over in our suits, carrying our towels. We wouldn’t even wear flip-flops, just bare feet on the hot black top.
– Ellen, Senior Graphic Designer

I was really into being a fireman. I had a whole outfit that I would wear, and my grandma would bring me to various fire houses during the week and ask if I could climb on the truck. They would always say yes!
– Jon, Art Director

My brothers and I would organize big bike races. We lived in a neighborhood with about 20 kids and we would all race around the block as fast as we could.
– Peter, VP of Exhibits and Building Operations

My cousins and I would play in our backyard: double dutch, off-the-wall and ride our bikes in a circle around a tree that was in the middle of the yard.
– June, Membership Operations

I would play in the big boxes my dad brought home from his factory. I would also build popsicle stick rafts and float them in puddles.
– Val, Graphic Designer