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Building Memory, Thinking, and Self Control Skills with Your Preschooler

Memory, thinking and self-control are three basic skills that people use every day. Together, these are called executive function skills. Young children need help to develop these skills as part of healthy brain development.

There are three main categories of executive function skills:

  1. Working memory skills help a child retain information and use it to answer questions.
  2. Flexible thinking skills help a child find relationships between different ideas.
  3. Self-control skills help a child regulate emotions and keep from acting impulsively.

Activities for 3 to 5-year-olds

Younger children need a lot of support in learning rules and structures, while older children can be more independent. The goal is to shift children away from relying on adult regulation. When the child seems ready, try to reduce the support provided. Try these activities with your children today!

Imaginary play

During imaginary play, children develop rules to guide their actions. They can keep complex ideas in mind and shape their actions to follow these rules. They exercise selective attention, work­ing memory and planning.

  • If the original plans don’t work out, children adjust their ideas and try again, challenging their thinking skills. Children in this age range are learning to play cooperatively and often regulate each other’s behavior, which is an important step in developing self-regulation.
  • Provide a wide range of props and toys, or allow children to make their own play props. Read books, go on field trips and talk about what you see people doing to help children observe others. Children often take ideas from their own lives, such as going to the doctor’s office.


As a young child’s storytelling grows more complex, they rely on their working memory to remember and use information.

  • Tell group stories to encourage attention, working memory and self-control skills. One child starts the story, and each person in the group adds something to it. Children need to pay attention to each other, think about possible plot twists, and make sure their additions fit the plot.
  • Have children act out stories, too. The story provides a structure that guides children’s actions. It also requires them to pay attention to the story and follow it, while limiting their impulse to create a new plot.

Songs and movement

Moving to music in a specific way or to a specific rhythm contributes to self-regulation and working memory. Play some music and have children dance re­ally fast, then really slowly, or play freeze dance.

  • Sing songs that repeat and add on to earlier sections. Examples include “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” “Five Green and Speckled Frogs,” and the alphabet song.
  • Use materials such as climbing structures, seesaws, obstacle courses and games that encourage complex motions like skipping and balancing.
  • Encourage attention control through quieter activities to reduce stimulation and focus attention. Use a balance beam or yoga poses that include slow breathing.

Quiet activities

  • Matching and sorting activities by different rules promotes flexible thinking skills. Children can first sort or match by color, then by shape. Increasingly complicated puzzles exercise a child’s visual working memory and planning skills.
  • Cooking gives practice to many executive function skills. A child needs to wait for instructions, then use their memory to hold directions in mind. They also need to focus attention when measuring and counting.

For more ideas to encourage healthy development, visit www.helpmegrowmn.org.

Information for this article was adapted from Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014), Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
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