George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Building Executive Function Skills Can Be Fun

Teachers can help students improve skills like inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility by explicitly connecting them to popular games—and then letting students play.

August 22, 2019
A group of elementary school students playing Jenga.
Dmitriy Shironosov / Alamy Stock Photo

As adults, we take a deep breath when someone cuts us off on the road instead of returning the favor. We quickly think of a substitute when we’re baking a cake and realize there’s no more butter. We write down a shopping list while simultaneously folding laundry and helping our children do homework.

We’re constantly exhibiting self-control, staying focused amid distractions, and flexibly solving problems in order to manage and complete tasks. Yet we weren’t born with well-developed executive function (EF) skills. These skills—a set of mental tools used to manage tasks and regulate one’s thinking to achieve goals—begin to develop early in life, a process that continues into early adulthood.

What that means for teachers is that elementary school students can develop and practice EF skills with explicit modeling and teaching.

Not Just Fun and Games

Do you remember playing games like Go Fish or Miss Mary Mack in school? Turns out games like these are more than just fun. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, one way we can help students develop EF skills is to use games—card games, board games, physical games and activities, and movement and song games. These games provide healthy challenges and practice for EF skills. Checkers, Connect Four, and Jenga are just a few examples of popular games that can help develop these skills.

When students play games that involve strategy, they have an opportunity to make plans, and then to adjust those plans in response to what happens during gameplay. The students’ inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory work together to support playing the game.

Teachers can provide opportunities for students to build their EF skills through meaningful social interactions and fun games. A gradual release of responsibility approach (I do, we do, you do) can support learning as the teacher provides intentional instruction and gives students an explicit explanation of the strategies or skills involved in games, and then allows them independent practice.

For example, as students play Simon Says, you can explicitly teach them about inhibition, saying something like this: “Our senses help our brains tell our bodies how and when to move. But sometimes we get distracted. When you can focus on important information and ignore distractions, you’re building your inhibition. Today we’re going to play Simon Says to practice inhibition. What are some things you might have to ignore when playing Simon Says? Yes, when we play Simon Says we have to ignore the instructions that don’t start with ‘Simon says.’ Let’s try it together now.”

Once students have learned the rules and game structure, teachers can foster EF development through behavioral and mental modeling, particularly using the think aloud strategy. For example, when playing Uno, you can demonstrate cognitive flexibility as you explain your thinking about how to attend to and switch between different card features at the same time.

You might say something like this: “Flexible thinkers can stretch or bend their minds to think about different things all at once. Watch and listen to how I can hold in my head the color, number, and symbol of my cards at the same time when playing Uno. I’m thinking, ‘I have five red cards and two yellow cards, but no green or blue. It’s my turn, and the previous player put down a green number 5. I remember I have no green cards, so I’m looking to see if I have any cards with the number 5. My red number 5 card works, so I’m going to place it on the pile.’ Did you see how I had to be flexible and think about the color and number to help me decide which card to place on the pile?” After this explicit instruction and modeling, students need time to practice by playing the game themselves.

If you want to introduce the concept of working memory, you might bring in games by saying something something like this: “Working memory is how you can hold information in your mind to help you as you work on something else. Today we’re going to play a game that helps us practice using our working memory to make it stronger. As you play the game Memory, remember to hold in your mind the cards you and your opponent turn over, so that you can remember and make the most matches. Be ready to share what strategy helped you remember what was on each card and where it was.”

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Making Time for Learning Play

Finding time to play games in an already busy schedule may be easier than you think. Movement and song games can be played during morning meeting. Board and card games can be played on rainy days during indoor recess or student self-directed play time. Games such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Head, Shoulders Knees, and Toes can be used as quick brain breaks during transitions between academic content or as students line up to go to lunch.

In addition to having time to play these games, students need to practice reflecting on their experiences and to share their thinking about what they’re doing and why. They also need a risk-free environment to discuss mistakes and what they learned. This also requires teacher modeling—a lot of explicit thinking aloud—and multiple opportunities for guided practice.

Executive function skills take years to fully develop. These EF skills contribute to student achievement because they support learning as students must pay attention, solve problems, persist amid challenges, and resist distractions. Teaching students how to play games can help them develop the executive function skills necessary to manage complex cognitive processes. So go ahead and play—it’s good for your students.

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Filed Under

  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Game-Based Learning
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary