How to support the ‘air traffic control system’ of your child’s brain

If your child is involved in organized sports, you’ve probably noticed that at practices and games some children are focused, listening to the coach, and doing what they are asked, whereas other children seem to be doing anything but — daydreaming, fidgeting, watching the birds fly by, or picking dandelions.

What allows some children to stay focused and on task despite all the distractions?

Executive function is a set of mental skills

Scientists are learning more about an extremely important part of the brain which they have dubbed “executive function”. It’s a set of mental skills that work like the air traffic control tower at a busy airport and it’s a key part of development in the early years. This part of your child’s brain allows your child to remember, focus, plan, and respond to changing circumstances. It begins to develop at about 3-years-old and continues to develop well into the mid-20s.

All of us who fly on airplanes rely on the critical functioning of the air traffic control tower to manage the arrivals and departures of many planes on multiple runways. Under a variety of conditions — including fatigue, turbulent weather, and unforeseen emergencies — the air traffic controllers in the tower must keep track of planes taking off, landing, and in the air. Your child’s executive function skills allow her to coordinate multiple types and streams of information to determine what to do.

Danger, danger! Distractions!

In a control tower, distractions can be dangerous! Your child’s executive function skills allow him to prioritize those multiple streams of information, manage distractions, and focus carefully on the task at hand. Conditions at an air traffic control tower change often so it’s important to be able to re-prioritize or change directions when necessary. One element of executive function is cognitive flexibility, which allows your child to shift attention from one task to another.

Sixth in a series

This series of articles tells the story of a child’s early brain development and how it relates to the development of physical literacy.

  1. Building your child’s brain is like building a house
  2. Building your child’s brain through physical literacy
  3. Build your child’s brain by giving them lots of experiences to explore
  4. Active play experiences help young children develop physical literacy
  5. Why relationships are so important when building a child’s brain
  6. How to support the ‘air traffic control system’ of your child’s brain

Finally, air traffic controllers are well prepared — it takes training, ongoing practice, and time to become an excellent air traffic controller. Likewise, your child’s executive function skills are learned beginning in early childhood, and taking around 20 years to fully develop through continual practice. Executive function skills are foundational to learning; they are the processes that enable your child to learn. Physical literacy activities are an excellent way to help your child develop her mental airspace!

This short video from the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University explains more about executive function.

How physical literacy helps to develop your child’s mental airspace

Physical literacy — the motivation, confidence, and competence to move for a lifetime — is an excellent route to supporting the development of executive function. Each of the three elements of physical literacy relates directly to executive function — the skills required by an air traffic control system.

An active body builds a healthy brain, for a lifetime.

Physical literacy How parents can help What children learn (how it develops executive function)
Motivation • Role model active play
• Play with your children
• Provide many opportunities to play
• Joy of participation
• Focus on activity
• Take turns
• Seek opportunities to play
• Develop an active lifestyle
Confidence • Provide both structured and unstructured play opportunities
• Offer a variety of recreation and sport opportunities so children can discover what they love most
• Avoid over-scheduling and keeping children too busy
• Discover what they love
• Filter distractions
• Emotional regulation: accept disappointment, cheer good play, be a good winner and a good loser
• Apply different rules in different settings
• Become a good team player
• Motivated to become competent
Competence • Provide skill building opportunities (good coaching)
• Begin to focus on favourite activities
• Help to establish short and long term goals for school, recreation/sport, arts, citizenship
• Multitask
• Plan ahead: organize time to complete homework and chores as well as play
• Set goals: short term within a practice or game, longer term to achieve milestones
• Filter out distractions that may sway from goals
• Switch gears when one route to the goal isn’t working

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