Summer Fun Builds Focus and Self Control

byMark Gardner, LCSW

Sun tan lotion – check!
Beach chair – check!
Latest issue of People magazine – check!
Fun activities that will build your child’s focus and self-control – huh?!?

Is that last item not on your summer fun checklist? Well, keep reading and you will, indeed, be prepared with easy to implement activities at the beach that will increase your child’s ability to focus and improve self-control. These techniques can also be used at other locales during your kids’ summer vacation, including at home and in the car.

In her book, Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky, of the Families and Work Institute conducted eight years of research, interviewing 70 researchers and reviewing over 1000 studies. Through this research, she determined that there are seven essential life skills all children (and adults) need to be successful in life. The first, Focus and Self-Control, is foundational to the next six: Perspective Taking, Communicating, Making Connections, Critical Thinking, Taking on Challenges, and Self-Directed Engaged Learning.

Before I outline some of the activities Galinsky recommends, let me mention briefly some of the underlying neuroscience from which she draws her strategies, based on the research.

The ability to have effective focus and self-control is based on the brain’s ability to do four things well: 1) concentrate intently; 2) keep things in mind, like the rules of a game or a role (working memory); 3) flexibly adapt or respond to new information (cognitive flexibility); and 4) stop itself from going on automatic pilot, getting distracted or giving up when an activity is difficult or boring (inhibitory or effortful control).

These four abilities are also known as, in the psychological lingo, some of the brain’s “executive functions” (the terms in parentheses in the above paragraph). As the term implies, they help one manage all of the complex processes involved in accomplishing goal-directed tasks in daily life, including school and homework. Additional executive functions include reflecting, analyzing, organizing, and planning. It is believed that much of brain activity involved in the executive functions occurs in a region called the prefrontal cortex, which is located right behind your forehead.

The good news – for your summer vacation and for your child, is that just like any other muscle in our body, one can exercise these brain areas to help them work better and improve overall emotional intelligence (EQ). And, as Galinsky emphasizes, one does not need special or expensive equipment or toys for a mental workout. It just requires some ideas and interactions between you and your child. Remember, it’s about having fun (no “teaching” required or allowed).

Below I list and explain some of the activities Galinsky outlines. They are best suited for preschool and elementary school-aged children, though many younger children will be able to engage in them. For additional details, more strategies, and the run down on the rest of the life skills she advocates, check out her book. Below the heading of each activity, I note the primary executive functions being exercised. Have fun!

Pretend Play
(Focus; Working memory; Cognitive flexibility; and Inhibitory control)

As you can see, it exercises all of the executive functions addressed in this article. It’s a very powerful activity.

This can be as simple as you and your child swapping roles (the child as mother or father; you as a baby or older child) plus a simple idea: meal time. Once that scenario is over, try another idea, like bedtime. Or switch to other roles your child likes or enjoys. Most children love to pretend to be the teacher and have a willing student to instruct (or order around!). Follow your child’s lead. Stay in character. Be (appropriately) provocative or humorous. See how long you can extend the drama.

This can be very easily expanded to include multiple children, like siblings or friends. And, especially with older children, props can be added; scenery can be created or improvised.

Play games that require children to pay attention:

Guessing games: “I’m thinking of an animal with a name that sounds like rat.”

“I Spy” (good in the car): You tell the child what you “spy” – “I spy something red” Answer: “Stop sign” or “stop light”. Or try a shape: “I spy something that looks like a circle.” Answer: “A tire” or “A wheel.”

Puzzles: Take magazine pages and tear them up in odd pieces (the older the child, the more pieces)

Red light/green light: One child is the light; turns back on an audience of children (or parents, siblings). Says “green light;” children move towards light. Child says “red light” and turns to catch the kids not stopped. They are out. Child who makes it first to the “light” without getting caught is the next light.

Musical chairs: Put out one less chair than there are players in a line back to back. One person plays the music while the players walk around the chairs. When the music stops, everyone tries to find a chair to sit in. Whoever is without a chair is out!

Bell game: – Give each child a small bell (or something that will make noise when moved). Tell them they have to walk without making a noise. You’re out if you make a sound with the bell. Change the movement pattern to make it more difficult.

Read stories to children in ways that encourage them to listen:
(Focus; Working memory)

Have children repeat out loud favorite sentences in a book; or finish a sentence that you started that they’re heard before. Or have them do the same with their favorite line or two from a nursery rhyme or song. Great with songs on the radio in the car, too.

Play sorting games with changing rules:
(Cognitive flexibility)

Say you have three cars and three flowers (or any other objects that share some attributes, but not others), one each in red, blue and green. Ask the child to sort first by color. Then ask the child to sort by shape. Use more colors or shapes to make it more complicated.

Play games that are rule-based:
(Working memory)

Simon Says: Chose a person to be Simon. The others only move when Simon says, “Simon says” before giving a direction. Such as, “Simon says, ‘touch your nose.'” If Simon just says, “Touch your nose,” and someone does, that person is out of the game. Give two instructions to make it more challenging. For example, “Simon says, ‘Touch your nose and rub your belly.”

Have children make and follow plans, and then discuss what they accomplished:
(Working memory)

This will also help with boredom, a common complaint at home or on vacation:
1) With your child, make a list of your child’s favorite activities (clip art or hand drawn pictures can be used for pre-literate children).
2) When they are ready to have their own play time, or say they are bored, ask your child to plan what they are going to do.
3) After the activity, ask them what they did. The more details, the better.

Play games where children can’t go on automatic pilot:
(Inhibitory control; Working memory)

These are games where you have to remember the rule and inhibit an automatic response.

Simple variation: Use a regular deck of cards. Throw down a card face up. If it’s a red suit, the child has to say “black.” If it’s black, he has to say “red.” Expand this by changing the colors that can be called out. Or add a rule, like face cards are a different color altogether.

“Peg Tapping” Game: Get two pens, pencils, crayons, sticks or similar objects. Tell your child that you’re going to play a game where you (the child) do the opposite of what I do. “I’m going to tap my leg twice; you tap your leg once; I tap my leg once, you tap your leg twice.” Then proceed to switch up the order of your tapping, having your child apply the two rules. You can make variations by increasing the number of rhythms (four taps; two taps).

Day-Night Task: If you show a picture of a day scene (could be pictures out of a magazine; or flipping channels on television): say “night”; See a picture of a night scene, say “day.”

Other opposite games: In the car, it could be say “red” if you see a green car and “green” if you see a red car. Make up different opposite rules.

“Simon Says, ‘Do the Opposite'”: “Simon says, “Shake your right leg,” the listeners shake their left leg. “Sit,” one stands up, etc.

Say “ten” fifteen times: Tell your child to say “ten” 15 times. Then ask, “What’s an aluminum can made of?” Many will say “tin.” Later that day, or the next, try it again.

Say “joke” fifteen times: Then ask, “What’s the white of an egg called?”

Say “pots” ten times: First explain the rules: If I say “Red light,” you say “Stop.” If I say “Green light,” you say “Go.” Then say pots ten times. You say, “Green light.” Many will automatically say, “Stop,” not “go.”

Remember, some of these kinds of mental exercises, although fun, may be taxing, so take regular breaks. And, sometimes it’s fun to not follow the rules to promote creativity (cognitive flexibility anyone?). Have a great summer!