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. 

Celebrate Mother’s Day: Activities to do with kids


Make this Mother’s Day Special!

Flowers and cards are nice, but there are as many ways to show appreciation as there are moms. It’s time to give Mom a break and some special attention. From baking treats to taking over chores, here are some ways to make Mother’s Day memorable.

Deliver a Tasty Bouquet

Instead of getting Mom flowers, kids can make a delicious “bouquet” of treats! Barbecue skewer stems can sport a variety of flowers. For example, cookies that have a hole in the center can be held on the skewer with a gumdrop above and below. Skewers can be pushed into slices of refrigerated cookie dough and baked in. Pieces of fruit such as grapes, strawberries, and melon balls can be skewered as well. You might wrap the stems in green florist tape from a craft store and even add leaves. Flower shapes and colors can be varied using different cookie cutters and icing tinted with food coloring. Or instead of flowers, make the cookies into smiley faces or balloons.

Make a Keepsake

To celebrate good memories with Mom, have children choose some of their favorite pictures and make a family collage. (They can make color copies or print out pictures on the computer.) They should arrange the pictures on paper or poster board, then decorate the collage and/or write something about the pictures. Another way to gather favorite pictures is to make a photo book. Children could also draw pictures about Mom, make a video saying thank you, or take a special new picture. They could decorate a dollar-store frame or even make a frame (for example, using craft sticks).

Fix Mom a Meal

One of the nicest things kids can do for Mom is to take over preparing a meal. It’s not as hard as it sounds! Dad might cook something on the grill, and kids can help make other items. Sandwiches are easy to fix, and they can make mini-pizzas with bagels or English muffins, pizza sauce, and shredded cheese. Combine raisins, nuts, and a favorite cereal to make snack mix. You can get vegetables already cut up for salad. For dessert, make cookies using a mix (and decorate them), or make made-to-order ice-cream sundaes. Be sure kids clean up and put things away in the right place. Mom will be delighted!

Fill a Gift Basket

A gift basket is a fun gift with lots of options. Mom will love “opening” her basket and finding all the surprises. Have children think about Mom’s favorite things. How does she relax? Is there a hobby she enjoys? Get things for the basket that will help her enjoy some of those things. You might get coffee or tea, a book, candy or other treats, beauty or craft items, a plant, or a scented candle. You could put in a movie and some popcorn! What you buy doesn’t have to be big or expensive. (Pay attention, though, because little things can add up!)

Also be creative about the container. It doesn’t have to be a basket – it can be a big bowl or a decorative storage box, for example. Make sure it is big enough to hold the things you want. You can put shredded paper, wrapping paper, or even cloth napkins in the bottom of the basket. Put your gifts in, with tall items at the back. You may want to add a bow.

Mom’s Helper Coupons

One great way to show appreciation for Mom is to give her some help! Have children do a little detective work and notice the things she does every day. Jobs may include making meals, vacuuming, and washing clothes. Have kids make a list of things they could help with and make “coupons” good for those chores. Maybe they could set the table or put dirty dishes in the dishwasher, help put away groceries, sweep the floor, or help make lunches. They should also think of things Mom likes that they can support – promise not to interrupt her workout or reading time, for example. They could even make a blank coupon for her to fill in! To make coupons, use a mini photo album or cut slips of paper and staple them together. Kids can write coupons by hand or make them on the computer (a large label format works well).

Coupons can also be made to look like flowers! You can put construction-paper flowers in a paper pocket “vase,” or use craft sticks for stems and put them in a real flowerpot. Make sure the stems are long and thick enough for kids to write a chore on each one.

Happy Mother’s Day!