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.


Preparing for Kindergarten: The Importance of Non-Academic Readiness Skills

by Sunny Im-Wang, PsyD, SSP

Smiling teacher at the school class.

Academic standards for today’s kindergarteners are much more rigorous than they were for today’s parents. Nevertheless, research indicates that kindergarten teachers feel that “executive functioning” skills, or skills that allow a child to control his or her behavior and emotions in a variety of settings, are better indicators of school readiness in today’s five-year-olds than academic readiness skills such as knowing the alphabet or being able to hold a pencil (Dockett & Perry, 2003). In fact, 75 percent of kindergarten teachers polled by Heaviside and Farris (1993) felt that children who are in good physical health, who have the ability to verbally communicate wants and needs, and who are curious and enthusiastic about participating in new activities are likely to successfully transition to a formal school environment and be  successful during their kindergarten year. Fifty percent of the same group of teachers felt that behavioral control, empathy, and socialization skills were also important skills for students to possess prior to entering kindergarten. Teachers of preschool-aged children can directly influence and enhance the development of these skills that will help ensure school success.

The following are key social/emotional skills that children need as they begin school:

  • Self-confidence
  • Ability to develop positive relationships with adults and other children
  • Ability to communicate emotions and feelings
  • Ability to listen to and follow directions
  • Ability to solve social problems

Children who have not learned these skills often develop behavior problems that then need to be managed, so it is important to expose them to activities and experiences that will enhance the development of these skills prior to their first day of formal schooling.


In order to foster self-confidence in young children, it is essential to use positive language as much as possible. When giving praise, it is important to be specific and praise actions and behaviors. For example, “You are doing a great job sharing your toy with Bobby,” is a much more informative statement than, “You are being good right now.” Telling a child specifically what he is doing right informs him of how to behave again in the future. These verbal reinforcements of positive behaviors will naturally decrease negative behaviors, because children want to behave in ways that please their caregivers and provide themselves with positive attention. It is this positive attention that also increases their sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Social Interaction

Prior to entering school, children should be exposed to a variety of social situations. Whether through team sports, group activities, lessons, preschool experiences, or extended family interactions, children learn how to get along with other children by being around other children. In order to successfully interact with others in these situations, preschool teachers should teach children how to initiate and maintain interactions with others, to solve problems, to communicate their emotions in appropriate ways, and to control their anger (Fox, et al., 2003).Take advantage of children’s personalities and activity preferences when engaging them in activities with other children. If a child is a very active child, engaging in physical activities with other children might be more beneficial for that particular child than, for example, taking a trip to the local library for story time. They are likely to find “kindred spirits” with whom to interact, and to experience these interactions as enjoyable.

Communicating Feelings

It is important that young children learn to communicate their feelings and emotions as specifically and correctly as they can, as well as to recognize the emotions of others. Children need a range of “emotional vocabulary words” in order to do this, and preschool teachers are in a great position to teach a variety of these words to children. It is important, for example, that children understand the meanings and implications of words such as frustrated, proud, afraid, excited, worried, and confused. Teachers can model the appropriate use of these feeling words by expressing their own feelings as specifically as possible, as well as by pointing out specific feelings that they observe in the children. When reading out loud to children, teachers can frequently stop to discuss the feelings of the characters involved, and also ask the children how they might feel if they were in similar situations as described in the stories. It can also be helpful to have children practice labeling the emotions and feelings of other children either during role-playing activities or by looking at photographs of other children.

Listening and following directions

The ability to listen to and follow directions is probably the most challenging behavioral skill that a five-year-old can accomplish. Children must direct and sustain their attention on someone else, understand what is being said, remember what to do, and then successfully execute the directive. To teach these skills, start slow and simple with easy, one-step directions. It can be helpful to cue children with an auditory signal, such as a clapping pattern, that alerts them it is time to stop talking and listen to the teacher. The children can repeat the clapping pattern back as an indication that they are ready to listen. Pairing auditory directions with visual cues, such as photographs or simple lists, can help children to remember the direction and stay focused while carrying out the specified behavior. Once single-step directions are effectively followed, two-step directions can be given. Again, visual cues such as photos in sequential order or a written list (for older children) can be very effective.


In the school environment, children will be faced with a variety of social problems that they will need to be able to solve on their own or with minimal help from their teachers. Arguments on the playground, hurt feelings, frustration over what is packed for lunch, etc., are all potential minefields where a child can either learn to cope effectively or break down. Prepare children for these potential pitfalls by presenting hypothetical (or real) stories and scenarios to the children and then guiding them through the analysis and solution to each problem. Teaching a specific problem-solving strategy can be helpful: identify the problem, think of some solutions, discuss the pros and cons of each solution, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome. The use of role-playing activities can serve as a great way for children to practice their problem-solving skills.

In sum, research has indicated that skills related to children’s successful behavioral and emotional control are considered more crucial to their successful transition to kindergarten than their mastery of pre-academic reading and math skills. Teachers of daycare centers and preschools are in an excellent position to help foster the development of these skills for children, ensuring that they will be emotionally and behaviorally ready for the challenges of the formal school environment.

© 2013 lilSprout Press. For permission to reprint, please write to:

Dockett, S., & Perry, B.(2003). The transition to school: What’s important? Educational Leadership, 60(7), 30-33.
Fox, L., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M. L., Joseph, G., & Strain, P. (2003). The teaching pyramid: A model for supporting social competence and preventing challenging behavior in young children. Young Children, 58(4), 48-53.
Heaviside, S., & Farris, S.(1993). Public school kindergarten teachers’ views on children’s readiness for school. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

New Release: A Children’s Book About Feelings

HappySad&EverythingIt’s finally here!  A book about emotional literacy for kids!!

Emotional literacy is one of the key ingredients to success in school and life. In her new book Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist, shows kids how to identify and manage their feelings—and have lots of fun while becoming emotion savvy 

With all the emphasis on preparing our kids to succeed in a high tech, competitive world it’s easy to forget one of the most essential life skills—emotional literacy. HAPPY, SAD & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: ALL ABOUT MY FEELINGS (lilSprout Press, April 2013, Hardcover) by Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D., offers kids (ages 4-8) a fun and easy program to learn how to identify and manage their feelings.


“Did you know that your feelings and your body are connected,” asks Kai, the narrator of HAPPY, SAD & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN. She goes on to explain how various emotions feel in the body and how we can change our emotions by addressing our physical sensations. This not only provides kids with critical emotional literacy tools, but it also helps them identify feelings that they may not be able to articulate in words. This is an example of mindfulness in action.

Each page of the book addresses a different emotion, including silly, jealous, shy, excited, loving, and lonely, and offers age-appropriate guidance for understanding and appropriately expressing all the feelings on the emotional spectrum. This book also includes kid-friendly, research-supported skills for relieving and managing difficult emotions, such as anger and frustration. These skills include mindfulness, which is the practice of being in the moment and recognizing physical and emotional sensations in a nonjudgmental way. This includes recognizing how emotions feel throughout the body—not just how they register on our faces.

HAPPY, SAD & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN helps kids understand the complex concept of emotions and gives them age-appropriate tools for managing them.

Earth Day Activities!

April, 22nd! Celebrate Earth Day!

kidspaintearth000009189704XSmallEarth Day is a time to be more aware of the environment. It is a good opportunity to connect kids with nature, foster appreciation of our world, and begin to develop “green” habits. Start at a basic level and help kids understand why and how we take care of the earth.

Take a “Hike”

What better way to celebrate the earth than getting outdoors! Kids will enjoy an exploration in a city park or even your back yard. You can look closely at flowers, weeds, and bugs (a magnifying glass is great for this!). You can hunt for specific things, such as animal signs like holes, or just look for interesting leaves or rocks. Challenge each other playing “I Spy.” You may want to take pictures of your discoveries or have your child draw a picture in a “field book.”

If you decide to take a real hike, keep it short and plan on frequent breaks for rest, water, and snacks. Play games, such as who can find the most different animals or plants. If kids get tired, try picking a spot ahead to walk to before stopping for a break. Be sure to discuss leaving nature the way you found it.

recycle000007631930XSmallLearn About Trash and Recycling

Make recycling into a game! Have kids look into the kitchen wastebasket and tell different items they see. Ask what happens to the trash, and explain where it goes after the truck takes it away. Discuss how some items are made from materials that can be used again instead of being buried underground. Then have kids play a sorting game with recyclables that don’t have sharp edges to see who can put the items in the right bin fastest. An alternative is to cut pictures of various items from ads and tape them to index cards to sort.

Learn About Endangered Animals

Earth Day is a good time to teach children about endangered species. Look up a list for your state and talk about species you have seen. (Kids may also be curious to search for images of ones they have never heard of.) Use the information you locate to explain why these animals are endangered: they may have been hunted too much, for example, or the places they live may have been destroyed by clearing or pollution.

Many zoos help preserve endangered animals. Visiting a zoo is a fun excursion to celebrate the variety of animals and perhaps see some that are threatened. Ahead of time, ask children which animals they most want to see, and find those locations on the zoo map. Also check the web site for the program schedule. For example, a talk by keepers can be interesting since some animals may be hiding or napping. At the zoo, kids may enjoy looking for animals of a certain color, etc. Talk about the kind of habitat each animal lives in. Later, children could make a mask of their favorite animal by decorating a paper plate or brown paper bag.

Make Recycled Paper

Children may be curious about how recyclable items can be used again. Point out how much of your household waste is different kinds of paper, and use some of it to make new paper! Tear discarded scraps of paper (or a sheet from an old newspaper) into small pieces. Soak the torn paper in hot water for half an hour. Then put it in the blender in batches with a little cornstarch. Strain the mixture and spread it evenly on aluminum foil. Place a dishtowel on top and roll over it with a rolling pin to squeeze out excess water. Take the towel off and let the paper mixture dry thoroughly (about a day).

Lightbulb in handsEnergy Quest

Walk around your home and point out things that use energy: lights, appliances, television and computer. Less obvious examples are “invisible” things like heating/cooling systems and running water. Talk about ways we sometimes use energy when we don’t need to, such as leaving the television on when nobody is watching. Brainstorm with children ways you could save energy at home. Kids may enjoy testing items, such as comparing a regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent. You can test for drafts by holding a ribbon next to the window, and test the refrigerator seal by pulling on a dollar bill closed in the door. Collect the water a dripping faucet loses in a certain amount of time and measure it.

It can be fun to try and see how little energy your family can use in a day. Turn the thermostat down and dress accordingly. Keep track of how long you spend in the shower and how many times you open the refrigerator door. Decide on only one television program you will watch, or play a game instead. Eat dinner by candlelight. Afterwards, talk about which ideas you might do on a regular basis. Pick one goal and try it for the next month!

Fun Activity Ideas for Spring Break with Kids

kids looking in

It’s almost here! Spring break!  If you’re not going away during this break, filling kids’ time during spring break is always a challenge. Here are a few ideas for active, creative fun.

Simple Kite

You can make this kite together and then try flying it! You will need wooden dowels, one shorter and one longer (such as 2 and 3 feet), a large brown paper or white plastic trash bag, and ribbon. Tie or tape the shorter dowel partway down the longer dowel to make a cross. Cut the trash bag open, flatten it, and draw an outline around the dowels. Have children decorate inside this kite shape. Then cut out the kite, leaving a margin. Tape the dowels to the back of the decorated paper or plastic with packing tape. Fold the edges over and tape them down, making sure the ends of the dowels are taped securely. Cut ribbon about twice as long as the kite and tape it to the bottom point. Tie several short pieces at intervals along the tail. Attach the end of a roll of string to the kite where the dowels cross.

Obstacle Course

A fun activity easily adjusted to children’s abilities is an obstacle course. This is ideal outdoors but also works indoors. You can make the course just a few “stations” or longer. Create obstacles and other supplies from whatever is available: sofa cushions, stuffed animals, etc.

The course can incorporate various movements. Walking can be following a marked path, stepping over something (or inside a hula hoop), “walking a tightrope” (a line on the floor), or squeezing between two objects. Kids can crawl under a table, between cushions, or through a large box. Add jumping/hopping too: children could proceed to a certain spot and then do several jumping jacks or a somersault. Other actions include pushing/pulling/carrying something, bouncing a ball, or tossing beanbags into a trash can. As children get the hang of the activity, they may enjoy timing themselves.

Putting on a Play

Kids love to put on a show! Spring break is a great time to do a longer activity, or you can keep this simple. Have children pick a favorite story and list the characters. Talk about what they say and do at the beginning and then what happens next until the end. Decide who will play each character (children can play more than one part). One character can be a narrator who remembers the story well (or follows a picture book). Others should practice listening to the story until their character is mentioned and then walking “on stage” and saying their part. Remind children to sound and behave like the character (e.g. big and scary, sleepy).

To make the activity more theatrical, choose an area that has a place the audience can sit and a way for kids to enter and exit the “stage.” Kids can use their imagination with props and scenery or draw some on chart paper. They may want to make a mask for their character(s) and find a “costume” to wear. However simple or elaborate, this is a fun activity to videotape!

Paper Bag Pinata

You don’t have to wait for Cinco de Mayo to enjoy a piñata, especially this easy version! You can use a paper lunch bag, gift bag, or grocery bag. Decide how children will decorate the piñata before you fill it – drawing is easier on a flat surface, but wrapping streamers around it may be easier when full. The piñata should be filled only partially so it is not too heavy; fill the remaining space with crumpled paper. Fold and staple the bag closed, or punch holes and gather it.

For a traditional Mexican look, kids can use tissue paper strips with a wide fringe cut on one side, gluing them around the bag (starting at the bottom) and attaching crepe paper streamers that hang down. Make sure to let the glue dry well before hitting the piñata!

easter egg huntEaster Egg Hunt

A traditional spring favorite, a simple egg hunt can work in your own space with little planning. The activity can be done in a park, a front or back yard, or designated rooms indoors. Hunting in snow can be fun as long as it’s not deep or slushy. For any location, think about safety issues like nearby traffic and tripping hazards.

You will need about 10 eggs per child. There’s no need to buy Easter baskets; kids can use any container or could decorate a basic bag, basket, or pail. And think outside the candy box – treats inside eggs can include stickers, small toys, or a ticket for a special prize.

You can adjust for age in several ways: give smaller children a head start, limit the eggs a child can find, create teams, or have different ages search in different areas/rooms or for different-colored eggs. Hide the eggs in obvious or trickier places depending on age, and make sure kids understand the rules (including off-limits areas where none are hidden).

To lengthen the activity, have children take turns looking. (You can also hide the eggs more than once.) Vary the activity by giving kids a simple picture “map” of where eggs are or having them look for an egg marked with the letter their name begins with.

And, remember to have fun~