Executive Functioning Skills in Holiday Activities-
Is it a celebration or schoolwork?
Soon after Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn quickly to Christmas and all the preparations I desire to complete while still homeschooling well. Read here how common holiday activities achieve the same goals of traditional school activities to build executive functioning skills.
When I worked in home health as an occupational therapist , one of my favorite clients had the most beautiful farmhouse kitchen. I could just picture her baking with her children in her younger years. Now, she instead ambled through the kitchen while I held tightly to her gait belt. She mixed the batter while humming a song all as I gave her cues and supported her balance. When I moved to Pennsylvania to start a new life as a homeschooling mom, she gifted me her 1983 Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Cookbook. I tell this story every year to my children, then we choose a recipe from her tried-and-true book and begin our holiday cookie baking. Even though the activity itself is so sentimental to me, skill building is another obvious benefit. In addition to the motor skills and social skills that I’ve already mentioned, baking builds multiple executive functioning skills.
Here are examples of executive functioning skills that were being built as we baked.
• Emotional control- My middle son wanted to help mix the ingredients, but his ever-efficient big sister basically finished before he could even start. They both had to control their emotions and talk it out.
• Flexible thinking, time management, and prioritization- We planned to clean up while the cookie dough chilled in the refrigerator. The dough was not ready to roll out when we expected, so we had to adjust our afternoon schedule.
• Response inhibition- It is so hard not to sneak bites. They, however, know they can lick the spatula if they hold out.
• Organization- We found and then returned all of the ingredients to their correct locations.
• Attention and persistence- This planned task took around 30 minutes. I often observed my youngest losing attention and running to the camera. Each time I brought him back to reengage, which built his attention span.
• Working memory- They had to remember the steps and know what they had already accomplished because no one likes cookies with missing ingredients.
• Metacognition- We finished the task with what I almost always ask, “How did you do?” All three children are really great at self-analysis. They pointed out their strengths and set goals for themselves well because it’s a constant focus in our home.
On November 29, I sit down with my calendar and a huge stack of holiday books. I plan to read one book a day and correspond that to events on that particular day, either something we plan to do or a calendar-designated event. We read The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg on the night we all have a slumber party around the Christmas tree and watch the movie by the fire. On December 6, we read The Real Santa Claus: Legends of Saint Nicholasby Marianna Mayer to know and honor St. Nicholas’s story. Between December 16 and 24, we read The Night of Las Posadas, by Tomie Depaolato learn of other traditions around the world. There are also ridiculous and fun books. One book a day lays out a plan for the month and helps us all count down to the big day.
This tradition also has hidden benefits for executive functioning.
• Emotional control- When we know when and where something is happening, our bodies and minds begin to self-regulate.
• Time management- We read the designated book first thing in the morning and decide how it relates to an activity. We then plan our daily workload.
• Organization- We place the books in order by our tree. My youngest often mixes them up, then must reorder them.
• Working memory- We often narrate stories or compare/contrast them. They must hold the new information from the stories in their heads and make connections with new material.
• Sustained attention and metacognition- They know how to keep their hands busy and mouths quiet during read-aloud; however, this often takes changes as we creep closer to Christmas. Self-evaluation and adjustment are key to executive functioning.
Each year, I plan to wrap presents weeks in advance, so that I won’t be running around last minute to purchase wrapping paper or my children won’t use all the tape on random projects. Have I been successful? Not. Even. One. Year. However, this year, I have a new plan. My children are purchasing and wrapping all the gifts for their siblings. They now receive an allowance through the Greenlight debit card and app. Yes, even my six-year-old has a debit card. They have all been monitoring their money to save for presents. The level of excitement has tripled as they have gathered gifts, hidden them until wrapping paper is available, and then independently wrapped them. The consumer math task is so beneficial, but even the simple act of wrapping targets these executive functioning skills.
• Response inhibition- Anytime we work with a tool, a certain level of response inhibition is required. Waiting for tools, using them safely, and moving gently with paper and tape require response inhibition.
• Working memory- Once we wrap one present, carrying over the sequence of the procedure and adapting it to different sized boxes requires working memory.
• Sustained attention and goal-directed persistence- Once we start wrapping, the goal is to at least finish wrapping one gift. However, adding bows and name tags or wrapping more than one present can further develop a child’s attention span. My youngest child’s ability to attend to tasks has steadily increased as he is now more familiar with the procedure and requires less assistance.
• Task Initiation- My children have each asked and then initiated wrapping on their own. This is different than in years past, and I believe it’s because they are even more excited about giving gifts that they chose and purchased on their own.
• Organization- When we remember the supplies (working memory), gather them, and then set them out to be used efficiently, our organizational thinking skills are built.
• Flexibility- I think we have all imagined a perfect gift adorned with a beautiful bow and then had tape stick to our fingers, ripped the paper, or simply cut it unevenly. Reimagining how a gift will look requires flexibility of thinking, emotional control, and sometimes even response inhibition.
The months of November and December are notorious for homeschool burnout. I hope reframing these timeless traditions to be skill building grants you more rest this season. If you want more information using everyday activities to intentionally build the skills your child needs or more specific ways to add activites to your homeschool day, please schedule your individual consultation with Sarah.
American Occupational Therapy Association. (2020). Occupational therapy practice framework (4th ed.). American Occupational Therapy. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2020.74S2001
Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but scattered: The Revolutionary "executive skills" approach to helping kids reach their potential. The Guilford Press.
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Sarah is an OT and home school mama whose zone of genius is bridging the gap between OT's and homeschool parents with resources to help them both thrive.
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