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.

 

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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!

Why your childhood fort is so memorable

We asked Exhibit Development Director and forts aficionado Katie Slivovsky to share her insights with us. Here’s what she had to say.


Does the word “fort” spark memories of secret hideouts you built in your closet, living room or yard?

Our childhood forts still evoke powerful memories, though they probably weren’t much to look at or particularly well-constructed. In fact, if we saw them today, we might think, “Someone needs to clean up that mess, pronto!”

We don’t remember our forts because they were impressive—we remember them because they were ours.

Forts were both sanctuary and home base for our developing imaginations.  We built them, we made the rules (including who could enter), and because of that we were the landlords and we were empowered.  Forts also provided comfort—a calm place just for us in the midst of a sometimes chaotic world.

As adults we may forget that children need a break too. Kids are aware of what’s happening around them, for worse or for better, and between challenges at school and demanding schedules, their worlds can be stressful. Forts provide a much-needed respite—if they get to design and make it themselves.

That’s why we created our Forts exhibit—to provide a space specifically designed for children to build the forts of their dreams. In doing so, we’ve learned a few things that can help parents and caregivers encourage kids to create their own sanctuary through fort building.

 

  1. Fort-building materials are not the same as a fort-building vision.

At home, adults usually provide fort-building materials: blankets, pillows, furniture and the space to build. At Chicago Children’s Museum, we’ve created a space totally dedicated to fort-building—our walls have hooks, our blankets have loops and every piece of furniture there is up for grabs.

But that doesn’t mean we control the vision—in fact, it’s just the opposite. Even though we designed the space, we love to be surprised at how our visitors configure it. It’s probably our favorite thing about the exhibit—at any hour of the day, the space looks totally different because the kids are in charge.

Parents and caregivers can provide materials and space (with limits, of course—not all your furniture need be up for grabs), but the kids should control the vision and direction of their fort. When parents and caregivers exert too much control, the fort becomes less about the kids building it and children lose the sense of control that is so integral to creating their own sanctuary.

 

  1. “No grown-ups allowed” is more than okay—it’s a good thing.

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes children don’t want grown-ups in their forts. In fact, sometimes we literally don’t fit—and that’s okay. A kid-sized fort that fits only one or two little ones shows that the child has been able to build a space just for them.

 

By letting children control the forts they design and build, they most certainly won’t be adult-sized. Remember to sit back and let children build forts that reflect their kid-sized view of the world—even if you can’t be a part of it.

 

  1. If you are invited, it’s a huge compliment—just don’t overstay your welcome.

At Chicago Children’s Museum, when one of our child visitors invites us to play, it’s the greatest compliment a museum staffer can get. Our space—including our Forts exhibit—is designed for kids to be in charge of how they play. If they want a grown-up to come along, we’re ready and excited, but realize that we’re guests in their world.

When a child extends an invitation into their space, it means they feel safe and comfortable to share their world with you. It’s a compliment for sure—but be sure to be a gracious guest and leave them to the world they’ve created for themselves.

 

We love forts because of how incredibly powerful they can be for children. When they build forts, children design and construct their own sanctuaries. They set the boundaries. They get to be in charge. They can be whoever they want to be, and gain confidence as they make their own rules.

When you come to our Forts exhibit, kids can get that experience in a space designed just for fort-building—and the best part is, we’re in charge of cleaning it up.

Katie Slivovsky is the Exhibit Development Director at Chicago Children’s Museum and spent her childhood building forts in the woods behind her house on the edge of a small town in eastern Iowa. Katie has developed several exhibits at CCM and at Brookfield Zoo, including the Hamill Family Play Zoo. FORTS is one of her favorites because children have complete creative control of the space. Her daughter, Leah, is quoted in the exhibit and pictured in a fort built for her dog, Midnight.