Holiday-Themed Executive Functioning Activities for Kids

Winter activityThe holidays offer many opportunities for children to practice executive functioning skills.  Below are some holiday-themed ideas and activities that incorporate the skills involved in executive functioning.

  • Compare/contrast several holiday celebrations. To encourage flexibility in thinking, research and practice celebrations or customs that are different from what your child has traditionally celebrated. In the United States, most families are familiar with the Christmas celebration, but there are many other occasions that occur during this time of year. Here are a few examples:
    • Hanukkah offers many opportunities for various kid-friendly cooking, games, and rituals.
    • The Winter Solstice is celebrated by many different ethnic groups; each has a different name for it: Yalda (Iranian), Modraniht (Saxon), and Saturnalia (Roman).
    • Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration that focuses on positive character traits, giving, and feasting.
  • Complete a craft project that requires planning several steps. A great holiday project that any child enjoys is creating a gingerbread house. Kits are available at large retail stores and grocery stores. It is also easy to construct a smaller “gingerbread” house using a small empty milk carton as a mold for graham crackers. Use icing to glue the crackers to the sides and top of the cartons, and then use it to glue decorative candies to their houses. Have your children separate the pieces, plan their creation, and then take action!
  • Organize gift-wrapping supplies and holiday decorations. There are several solutions to organizing wrapping paper supplies available at home hardware stores, but you can also use old shipping boxes, a large gift bag, large plastic storage bags, or plastic storage bin to keep tape, ribbons, tissue paper, and other supplies at bay. Enlist the help of your children, or give them this project to do on their own.
  • Play “freeze” games. If the weather outside is frightful, stay inside with your children and play games that allow them to practice behavioral control and inhibition.  Research has shown that games such as the following lead to increased self-control in preschool aged children:
    • The Freeze game. Play music for your children, and encourage them to dance! But when the music stops, they must freeze until it starts again. Dance quickly for fast-tempo songs, and dance slowly for slow-tempo songs. These cues can also be reversed, so that they dance slowly to fast music and vice versa.
    • Color-matching freeze. In this version of the freeze game, children are assigned colors. When the music stops, they must find a colored mat and stand on it.
    • Conducting an orchestra. Kids play musical instruments (like maracas and bells) whenever an adult waves her baton, increasing their tempo when the baton moves quickly and reducing their tempo when the baton slows down. Then the opposite rules apply (e.g., kids play faster when the baton moves slowly).
    • Drum beats. Children are to respond to different drum cues with specific body movements. For example, they might jump in place when they hear a fast drum beat and walk in slow circles when they hear a slow drum beat. These cues can also be reversed after the children have grown accustomed to them.

And most importantly, have fun!!

Happy Holidays!

What is Executive Function?


Tominey S, & McClelland M. (2011). Red light, purple light: Findings from a randomized trial using circle time games to improve behavioral self-regulation in preschool. Early Education & Development 22(3): 489-519.


Thanksgiving and Beyond: Gratitude All Year Long


As Thanksgiving approaches, we often reflect on the things in our lives for which we are thankful, both big and small. Perhaps you have developed “thankful rituals” and passed those on to your children, such as making lists of all the reasons to feel gracious and thankful to share with the rest of the family during the Thanksgiving feast. How quickly that attitude of gratitude can turn into commercialization and mile-long wish lists of the holiday season. By the time we ring in the New Year, we have often forgotten about Thanksgiving and the thankful attitude that accompanies it. It is easy to lose thankfulness in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but there are some things we can do and things we can model for and encourage our children to do that will foster thankfulness all year long.

  • Keep a daily Gratitude Journal. At the end of each day, write down two or three things in your gratitude journal. Help your children to create their own journals, and encourage them to participate. This activity can be a great addition to the bedtime ritual, and it teaches your children to be reflective of the day. Very young children might need help with the writing, but they can certainly draw pictures to accompany your words. Feeling gracious every day for the good things that happen in our lives can help to foster an overall positive outlook and optimistic attitude. Once you have maintained a journal for a full year, it can be fun to read the things for which you were thankful the year before in addition to writing new things for the current year. You can also do a project as a family such as My Family’s Thankful Book.
  • Make “Thank You” a frequent part of your interactions. How often do we say, “Thank you?” We might ask our children to do things, such as pick up their toys or wash their hands before dinner; but, how often do we then thank them for following these directions? How often do we thank them for displaying proper table manners, for sharing their toys with each other nicely, or getting dressed by themselves? As parents, we have to model the kinds of behaviors we want to see in our children. Therefore, thank them sincerely and often! Reinforce them, as well, when they thank you and other adults, as well as when they thank each other.
  • Write real “Thank You” notes. Encourage your children to write thank-you notes for all gifts they receive throughout the year. Keep a box of thank-you notes handy, or create some out of nice paper and colored pencils. Stock stamps and envelopes as well. Point out those occasions when people treat either you or your child especially well, such as a waitress, a cashier, the mailman, a relative, or a teacher. Together, you and your child can recognize these “random acts of kindness” with a real thank-you note. It will brighten someone’s day and teach your child the importance of saying, “Thank you.”
  • Show Anonymous appreciation to local heroes. Two or three times over the course of the year, you and your child can pick a “local hero” to recognize with a token of your appreciation. An easy thing to do is have your child help you bake a cake, cupcakes, or cookies and deliver them along with a note of gratitude. The following list contains possible “local heroes”:
    • Police officers
    • Firemen
    • EMS workers
    • Postal workers
    • Workers at the animal shelter

In addition to brightening someone’s day, you can also teach your child a valuable lesson in the kinds of services these people provide, and why they deserve our thanks.

  • Practice self-appreciation. Appreciate your self by giving your bodies and minds proper care. We do this by getting enough sleep, eating balanced diets, getting plenty of rest, keeping our minds appropriately stimulated, and having time for play. Model these behaviors for your children and encourage them to take care of themselves physically and mentally.

These are just a few ideas for keeping an attitude of gratitude all year long, not just during the Thanksgiving season. Remembering often to take care of ourselves, to recognize the positive influences others have in our life, and to appreciate things that others do for us will not only keep us gracious, but will model these behaviors and attitudes for our children.