If your baby’s brain had a manager on duty, it would be executive function. That manager helps your child pay attention to what’s important and filter out what’s not, plan and prioritize actions, and control impulses. It’s pretty powerful stuff—underpinning so much of what little ones master as they develop and grow.
By the time your child is about 18 months old, she is likely learning new words at a fast and furious pace. Plus, she has a new and growing ability to understand rules and to know what she’s thinking about, doing, and even planning to do.
These are all the beginnings of executive function. The three big tasks her brain is working on now are focus and attention, working memory, and inhibition. You can help your cutie build all these crucial skills through everyday play and conversation.
This one’s pretty clear: In order to learn new things and master skills, a child has to be able to keep his focus on what he’s doing, whether it’s finger painting, listening to a story, or climbing steps. He also has to ignore all the other sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures that surround him. His brain has to decide: What matters? What doesn’t—at least right now?
To help your child hone his attention skills, try these activities suggested by Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child:
- Imitation games: See if your child can copy a face you make, or a simple movement like waving.
- Songs with accompanying movements, such as “Pat-a-Cake” or “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”
- Sorting games, but with a twist: Putting red balls in a blue bucket, for example
- Simple, baby-safe puzzles—placing pieces with their matching backgrounds
- Puppet play: Use a puppet to suggest simple actions, such as clapping hands or giving a kiss. The unique face of the puppet draws your child’s focus to its features instead of yours for an extra challenge.
Working memory is your child’s ability to keep ideas or information at the ready as she plays. That could mean the rules of a game—or the rules of a classroom later. It could mean a concept such as big versus small. It could mean knowing—and producing—the right word at the right time. All of these activities will build your child’s working memory powers:
- Hiding games, like peek-a-boo or simple hide-and-seek (such as stashing a toy under a cloth or behind a pillow)
- Songs, especially those with accompanying movements (Can she recall the words? The gestures? Both at once?): Try “I’m a Little Teapot,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “Where Is Thumbkin?”
- Storytelling: Make up simple tales about things she’s done or places she’s been to help her recall them. Try reenacting with puppets or stuffed animals.
- More matching and sorting games
Inhibition (which you could also call self-regulation) means being able to control impulses so that they don’t distract from a goal. As you can imagine, this is a tall order for toddlers—as well as preschoolers, big kids, and even adults! But even kids two and under can start to practice these skills. Here’s how:
- Activities with turn taking, such as rolling a ball back and forth or working together to add blocks to a tower (first baby, then you, then baby, and so on)
- Songs that incorporate stopping and starting: freeze dance, “Popcorn,” “Ring Around the Rosie,” “Open Them, Shut Them”
- A familiar game, tweaked: Sort colorful objects by shape instead of hue.
- Dramatic play: At this age, little ones are learning that a toy can stand in for the real thing. You can show your child how to rock a baby doll or pound with a toy hammer, and soon he’ll catch on. As he gets a little older, he’ll begin to role-play with these kinds of toys.