Play sense toddlers

Raising Little CEOs: Developing Executive Function in Toddlers

As the parent of a busy a toddler, you will know that there is no chill. Silence is a siren that your little one is up to something. Unpacking the Tupperware cupboard, organising stuffed animals in order of size, colour or favourites, covering the bathroom tiles in hair conditioner, delegating tasks and demanding others join in – it doesn’t seem to stop. But have you ever wondered why your toddler is SO busy?

Mischief or Chief Executive Officer?

You can be sure that a bit of fun and mischief creeps in when your toddler is exploring the world around them. But if you look a bit more closely, you’ll notice that hosting a Dinosaur’s tea party with your fancy cups and saucers is actually your child’s way of mastering their ability to focus, plan, prioritise and work towards a goal. All while managing their feelings – the frustration, stress and elation when they succeed.

When your toddler is engaging in this kind of experimentation and repetition and play, they are developing executive function. Or in other words the cognitive abilities your child needs to control their thoughts, emotions, and actions – executive function is the CEO of the brain.

To really understand executive function in your little one, you can compare it to what a typical CEO does. They identify a problem (problem solving), consider what resources are available to them (planning), they implement a strategy to address the problem (task initiation and time management). They monitor progress and change direction when necessary (flexibility) and inspire others to be part of the solution (emotional control). You will see how these are skills that we all use every day to manage our daily lives. Whether we run big businesses or not, these skills are essential for success – both in isolated tasks and in life.

The boss of me

As an infant, your child will start developing executive function skills by experimenting with cause and effect and understanding language. By the time your little one turns two, they are ready to actively develop control of their world – a foundation of executive function.

So now you know what’s keeping your toddler so busy, but how do you know your toddler is learning these important skills as best they can? Research shows that the absolute best way for children to learn executive function (and other important skills) is through imaginary play. The scenarios they create or that are created by co-players involve processing, planning, prioritising, flexibility and the ability to recover emotionally from setbacks.

Imagine having an idea for a game and trying to get a little friend to join in the game with limited language. That’s exactly what happens to your toddler daily – they are finding ways to make what is in their head a reality. And just like being the CEO of a company, it’s hard work!

So, encourage make believe play as much as you can. Choose childcare that prioritises play. Most of all, join your little one in playing imaginary games. Whether you are pretending to keep a crocodile as a pet or looking after a doll when playing house – it’s this sort of engagement that develops and hones your little one’s executive function, a skill that will serve them well throughout their childhood, all the way into adult life.