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!

Fun Facts (for your next playgroup): Crawling into Reading

Few things make me cringe. While stepping on a rogue Lego with bare feet tops the list, a parent stating that their child skipped crawling and went straight into walking comes in at a close second.

Now let’s get this out of the way: Am I suggesting that children who pass over the crawling phase will never develop properly? NO! I’m not saying that.

I am saying: Crawling is awesome! The simple act of scooting about literally builds the brain structures a child will use their entire life. Many of the same physical skills necessary to successfully crawl are used later on for reading.

The link between crawling and reading

Crawling into reading

Crawling aids in the development of visual skills. When crawling from one place to the next, a baby will use her binocular vision to look ahead and visually determine where she wants to go. Put simply, binocular vision is when the eye alters its focus between distance and up close. This teamwork of eye functions is used in both reading and writing.

The eyes aren’t the only thing working together. Crawling and reading require both sides of your brain to communicate with one another in a movement pattern called Cross Lateral Integration or Bilateral Coordination. These fancy terms refer to crossing the midline of your body. The act of crossing your midline promotes stimulation in the Corpus Callosum (AKA a million of nerve fibers joining the two sides of the brain.) This cooperation between the brain’s two hemispheres is essential for the appropriate development of various skills— including reading and writing.

Crawling into readingAnother essential skill shared by crawling and reading is problem solving. When little ones are learning to crawl they are planning, strategizing, and reflecting. These skills develop so they can navigate around obstacles and create new paths— the same skills later used in reading comprehension!

Do crawlers have a leg up when it comes to academics? While many studies have linked crawling to early proficiency in reading, there are many readers who have never crawled a day in their lives. However, crawling is adorable and if there’s a chance that the simple act of moving about will help your child develop stronger motor and cognitive skills, why not encourage them to linger in the crawling stage?

So the next time you gram an adorable pic of your little one crawling, think bigger than #crawling. Go ahead and share some of these sweet facts with our #CCMfam. Heck, throw in a #ChicagoChildrensMuseum for good measure!

-Ms. Rachel

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.

How parents and caregivers can move beyond gender stereotypes

Is what we think of as “for boys” or “for girls” written in stone? Some childhood development experts argue that children learn these stereotypes from grownups, and that it starts at a very young age.

Take gender-specific toys: Toys directed at boys tend to have more to do with visual spatial skills and active/physical play, whereas toys directed at girls are more focused on language arts and social skills. Children can take cues from those focuses, form their own gender stereotypes, and grow up thinking that certain skills are reserved for boys, while certain skills are just for girls. This can limit children’s perceptions of what they’re good at, what they’re capable of, or even what is possible for them.

But kids don’t necessarily have to live by those strict stereotypes—just ask Riley:

Riley Video

As parents and caregivers, you can help prevent kids from forming and internalizing some of these gender stereotypes. Here’s how.

 

Think beyond two groups.

It takes a little thought and practice, but avoid reinforcing the gender binary—the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, masculine and feminine. Not everyone fits into one of those categories.

Instead, try to think about gender identity as a spectrum with characteristics that intersect and overlap. Remember that there isn’t one way to be “male,” one way to be “female”—there’s a wide range of ways to express gender.

 

Avoid assumptions.

Making assumptions about gender is something we’ve been taught to do since birth, so it can be tricky to stop. However, gender isn’t always cut and dry—take the recent uproar about Garfield’s gender identity.

Instead of making your own assumptions, try not to label a child’s stuffed animal or toy a particular gender—let the child do that and support their decision. Additionally, if children are playing together, avoid gendered romantic labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

 

Create a new greeting.

One way to resist the gender binary and avoid assumptions is to avoid gender in a greeting.

For example, when you greet a group of children, instead of saying, “Hi boys and girls,” which reinforces the gender binary, try, “Hi friends,” or address a group of children based on what they’re doing: “Hi artists/climbers/explorers,” etc.

 

Don’t let gender make the rules.

Children enjoy and benefit from all kinds of imaginative and creative play—regardless of gender. When hosting playdates and parties, don’t let gender determine the activity.

Instead, offer art, active play, dress up, superhero play, dance, etc. to all children, regardless of the gender of your guests. Playing dress up and playing superhero have much in common, and all children can benefit from (and enjoy) many different ways to play.

 

Ignore blue and pink.

There are an awful lot of ways that stores and manufacturers gender the toys they make—so much so that it can be obvious which store aisles are “for boys” and which are “for girls.” But like Riley asks in the video above, who makes those rules anyway?

Ignore those rules and, when purchasing gifts for your kids, relatives, or friends, don’t limit yourself to toys labeled “boys” or “girls.” All children deserve (and want) the opportunity to explore a variety of interests—regardless of gender.

 

Read more about how Chicago Children’s Museum tries to remove gender stereotypes from our exhibits and why.