A new study presents promising results for a preschool program aimed at developing executive function through play. Children in classrooms that incorporated the play-based program showed significant improvements in executive function, language, and motor skills. The findings were published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Executive function refers to a set of mental processes that help people regulate their behavior. These critical skills include inhibition, working memory, and flexible thinking. Studies suggest that children who score higher in executive function fare better into the future, showing better academic success, social competency, and mental health.
Study authors Robbin Gibb and her team conducted a study to explore the efficacy of a preschool program that was designed to help children develop executive function. The play-based program, called Building Brains and Futures, uses 10 skill-building games to help children practice working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition. The games are designed to be easily incorporated into the classroom, and include activities like block building, pretend play, and ‘Simon says’.
A pilot study compared a classroom that implemented the program (experimental group) with a classroom that did not (control group) and found initial promising findings. The program was then implemented across four different educational sites and a total of 68 preschool-age children.
Classroom educators first attended a workshop where they were instructed on the program. They were then told to incorporate at least one game per day into their classroom and to rotate through all ten games regularly. To measure the success of the program, the researchers had children complete four different tabletop assessments at the beginning and end of the school year. Parents also completed questionnaires assessing their child’s behavior.
According to the findings, the children showed improvements on three of the four tabletop tasks. First, children made fewer errors on two building block tasks that asked them to recreate four models out of building blocks. This task required children to hold the task instructions in mind, remember where to locate blocks, and imagine the model from different perspectives. Children also showed improvement on a “Grass or Snow” task that had them embrace the idea that a white sheet of paper represents grass and a green sheet of paper represents snow, testing their inhibition, memory, and flexible thinking.
The results further showed that better performance on the tabletop tasks was associated with better behavior according to the parent questionnaires. For instance, children who were faster at completing the big block task had higher scores for communication, gross motor skills, problem solving, and the personal/social aspects of the Ages and Stages Questionnaire.
The authors of the study note that all classrooms were able to easily incorporate the games into their regular activities, suggesting that the program can be flexibly integrated into early education programs. However, the study was not without limitations. For example, since the researchers focused on average data, they acknowledge the possibility that some children improved in specific areas while others did not. Further examination of the data may offer insight into factors affecting a child’s success with the problem.
“Despite these limitations, the BBF program is free, easy to use, and as shown here, effective in building EF skills,” Gibb and her colleagues say. “As we continue to expand this program including a larger control and more experimental sites, we hope to gain a better understanding of factors (e.g., SES, gender/sex, adverse childhood experiences, etc.) that moderate child development so the BBF can include individualized approaches.”
The study, “Promoting Executive Function Skills in Preschoolers Using a Play-Based Program”, was authored by Robbin Gibb, Lara Coelho, Nicole Anna Van Rootselaar, Celeste Halliwell, Michelle MacKinnon, Isabelle Plomp, and Claudia L. R. Gonzalez.