Occupational Therapy helps kids learn executive functioning skills in play

What is executive functioning?  Why do kids need good executive functioning skills?

We all know kids should play, but there’s more to their play than just preventing boredom!  Play is one of the primary ways children learn.  Executive functioning skills are one of the skills that children learn through play.

Our Occupational Therapists explain the executive functioning skills for kids…

Executive functions/skills are our higher-level skills that help us to:

  • Initiate – get started on a task or instruction
  • Inhibit – inhibit impulse actions, thoughts or behaviours at the appropriate time
  • Shift – ability to move between activities and tasks smoothly
  • Emotional Control – our ability to monitor and regulate our emotions and emotional responses
  • Working Memory – hold information in our mind and use it in what we do e.g. remembering 3 directions and carrying all three out
  • Planning – plan what we need to do to get a task finished
  • Organisation of materials – organise our belongings to that we can find them and use them consistently
  • Self-Monitor – monitor our behaviours and actions in relation to others
  • Task-Monitor – monitor what we are doing in a task to ensure we follow through on our plan and complete it the way we need to

How do children develop executive skills in play?

Through play children learn that there are patterns and sequences to the way we do things. In the very early years they learn that first we put a block on the floor, and then we put another on top. Later they learn that we cook some food before we eat it and then they imitate this in their play. They learn that baby has a bath before he goes to bed and they will play this sequence over and over in their play. Through this play they learn to put their toys in certain spots so they can find them later and use them in their next play experience. Through observation of the adults in their life and their own experiences they learn that there is a sequence to how we do things. Children also learn that when they cry, the adults (or older siblings) comfort them and help them manage their emotional upset, through this experience and through watching those around them, they learn what emotional responses are appropriate and what are not. In play – they test their theories and responses to see what works and what may need adjusting.


Children that are regularly told what to do next, and not prompted to think of what is next, may not develop these skills as organically. Some children have difficulty holding lots of information in their mind at once and need help to remember all the things they need to do, others need help to get started on what they need to do. Prompting our children with open ended questions, visuals and actions can help them to develop their own strategies to enhance their executive skills.

Our Occupational Therapists can help children develop and extend their executive functioning skills, leading to better play, learning and attention.  Click here to watch our Occupational Therapist, Bre, chat with Marion about executive functioning in play.

If you want to chat to one of our occupational therapists about your child’s executive skills, please don’t hesitate to contact us here at Cooee.