Learning, Executive Functioning, and Play


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What is executive functioning?

On this episode of the Strength In Words podcast, Ayelet sits down with Renee Peña Lopez, a special education and early childhood educator, to discuss how executive functioning is related to foundational learning and play in early childhood. We got the scoop about how to make play more purposeful to support this important part of brain development in infants, toddlers, and beyond.

We spoke about Renee’s journey into the kind of work she does and why she’s so passionate about it, what executive functioning is and how it’s related to learning and play in early childhood, Renee’s favorite ways to make play more purposeful, and additional resources she recommends to families interested in seeking out resources about executive functioning, learning and play.

Prefer a Text Version of This Episode?


The Happiest Toddler on the Block, by Harvey Karp (affiliate link)

Mind in the Making, by Ellen Galinsky (affiliate link)

Smart But Scattered, by Peg Dawson (affiliate link)

Strength In Words podcast episode, “Holistic Learning”

Strength In Words podcast episode, “Labelling Emotions”

Strength In Words podcast episode, “Tips to Meet Your Infant or Toddler’s Sensory Needs”

Strength In Words podcast episode, “Match, Classify, Pattern”

Strength In Words blog post on travel math and music activities

Social Stories by Carol Gray


Connect with us!

Ayelet: Facebook / Instagram / Pinterest / YouTube

Renee: Website / Facebook / Instagram / Pinterest

Do You Have Thoughts About This Episode?

The Strength In Words podcast is where we provide information and ideas about the ways infants and toddlers learn and develop… but the Community LAB is where families and professionals can access each other and synthesize that information.

text transcript of this episode

Ayelet: Welcome to episode 59 of the Strength In Words Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Renee Peña Lopez. Renee is a licensed special education and early childhood teacher who has a passion for little people and their quirks. Renee pulls from her creative background in dance and her vast experience in an array of classrooms from museum education to progressive to play-based models. She truly believes that play matters in the lives of young children – and for it to matter, it must be purposeful. It is her passion to guide parents and teachers in this whirlwind time in a child’s life and to figure out together how to create a strong foundation to allow young children to be their best selves. You can find out more about her mission to help little people at madeforyoulearning.com. Renee, thank you so much for being here – welcome to Strength In Words.

Renee: Hi, thank you, I’m so happy to be here.

Ayelet: So, I have asked you to come onto the show today to speak about the area of brain development known as “executive functioning,” and how it relates to foundational learning in the first few years of life. But first, let’s just hear a little bit about you, what brought you to the kind of work you’re doing today, and what it is about it that makes you so passionate!

Renee: Oh my goodness, such a… I could answer it for days. So, like you said, I started in – I had a creative background, I was dancing all my life, and I got hurt. Dancer injury, I got hurt, and my aunt said, “why don’t you go into teaching,” and I said… I don’t know. So I resisted it for the longest time. I did tutoring, and finally I found an early childhood job, and I was actually an administrator, and the director at the time, Elena – I’ll always be thankful for her – she pulled me aside and said, “I’m gonna teach preschool, and you’re going to be my assistant.” But there were only, like, four kids! And I was like, “um, do you need an assistant for four kids?” She’s like, “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah – help me!” So, of course, lo and behold, I was left with four kids after only a month. And she’s like, “you got this! You can teach early childhood – I’m just going to tell you what to do!” And I’m like, “what?! What am I doing with these four kids?” So, I kind of fell into it. And then I found out about special ed, and see it work – and she was like, “you’re perfect for it! You’re dyslexic, you kinda ‘get’ kids, and they like you, and you really understand how their brain works. And I see it! You’re always processing the information and applying it – you should really be teaching.”

So I got my Masters, all that logistical stuff that teachers get. And then I kind of just kept digging in, and kind of fell in love with pre-school aged kids, and especially I would say, like, two to… I still feel like “early childhood” should be to like six- or seven-years old, so I kind of think those ages. And yeah, all the little quirks and the weird things that happen. And then I became a mom and realized that I know nothing.

Ayelet: Hahaha! Such a common phenomenon!

Renee: And was like, okay, it’s a… you know, now that you’re past the guilt, like, what are you learning from this? So now, I’m kind of applying also my “mom world” to my work as well, so it just kind of fuels everything even more so than before. And executive functioning just kind of kept popping up in people, like kids I was tutoring, kids I was helping in a classroom, and I was like, I don’t really know what this is… so I just kind of kept digging and digging and digging, and one weird thing about I found about this work is that nobody really has a concrete definition – I mean, they do, but it’s very logistical. So, some people refer to it as “classroom management,” like it’s more for older kids, they often think of, like, middle school, or high schoolers, and it’s really like the foundations, like you said, the foundations of learning for kids. So, the simplest way I think of it, like, your brain is a computer, right? We have all these cognitive skills, and you need to learn to control and regulate your thoughts, and your emotions, and your actions, but what people always think of is, like, “oh, little kids can’t do that, they’re so emotional, you know they wanna control them” and it’s hard, right? But take a breath and just think that they’re always developing. Like, kids, their brain develops in such big spurts.

Basically, what’s happening in the world of education is they’re realizing that kids need more than classroom management and behavior management, and it really starts when kids are younger, before the age of three, you know, they have all this brain growth, so why don’t we use it, right, and use it to our benefit – both as parents and as teachers – and help them to learn to control and regulate their thoughts and feelings and emotions… and really be able to sit back and say, I’m building these skills for life, right? So, sounds like a big ask of little kids. And you know what Piaget and all these fancy guys were kinda thinking about it, but they were thinking of it more in a scientific, like, “I wanna experiment” way, but we’re moving now to the 21st Century, we’re heading up with technology, we’re heading up with all these trains of thought, and we know a little too much, but really it’s about peeling back to the basics, and so, how do we create this, right?

Ayelet: So yeah, the million dollar question, of course, is what is executive functioning first of all, and then secondly, how is it related to learning and play in our infants and toddlers? Like you said, let’s peel back the layers!

Renee: Right. So, Executive Functioning, the Webster definition, is a focus on brain operation system, the cognitive skills, and I’m reading off my notes cause I can never get it right, we need to control, regulate our thoughts, our emotions, our actions in face of conflict or distraction. The best way I can describe it is, I’m thinking in classroom terms cause I’m a teacher, but the best way I can describe it is my toddler, this morning is a great example, she wanted these grapes. These grapes are huge, I know I have to cut them, I did not preface anything, I just took them from her and started cutting them. What does she do? Whaaaaa. Like, I’m just done with you mom. How dare you take those grapes from me. I’m just gonna throw myself on the floor cause that’s the only way I feel like I can get my point across. She’s 21 months yesterday, and so cognitive skill-wise she’s like, I can’t control this. We always think about these young guys, have these big emotions and we want to be there for them. That’s basically the basis of how this works for Littles, how to be there, how to help them conflict resolve and feel these big emotions without always feeling like the world is falling apart.

Ayelet: Right, and what you described, of course, is cognitive development because executive functioning does fall within that domain of development, that area of development, but of course, we know that it is also highly interrelated and correlated to social and emotional development. And of course, as we talk about all the time on Strength In Words, the first three years especially of an infant or toddler’s life, it’s holistic learning guys. All of those areas of development are completely interrelated.

Let’s break it down even more, just so people have a clear understanding. One thing that really helped me, when I was in grad school learning about, what is executive functioning, is my professor explained it as, essentially it’s all of the skills that you would need to function as an executive. Those things let … can you name a few of the kinds of skills?

Renee: Some of the skills is follow directions, control impulses, the ability to focus, the ability to be patient, the ability to take turns. Sound familiar?

Ayelet: Right. They’re all the things that toddlers struggle with.

Renee: Exactly. Make judgements and project managing. Getting from one step to another, transitions.

Ayelet: Oh God. We can all relate, right? That this is clearly a foundational skill.

Renee: Exactly. It’s all there, right? It’s crazy, we’re asking these little beings to get it together cause I need you to get it together, but that’s basically … if you’re thinking like an executive, right, they’d be able to make decisions and be able to say yes and no. I feel like those wh-questions, not even h-questions, not even gonna tell the how questions, not even the why questions, just like what do you want to eat? Do you want this or do you want that? Those are still, you’d be surprised, and depending on their age, some kids can’t handle that, right? And that’s important. They have to be able to answer those questions. They ability to be patient, to wait your turn, actually has a – tied to self control. Back in 1972, Stanford University did that experiment, I don’t know if you read this experiment in grad school, you probably did, in which the marshmallow they put in with the three and four years olds and they tell them they have to sit there for fifteen minutes and that if they ate the marshmallow then that was it but if they waited the fifteen minutes then they would get a second marshmallow. First of all, the fact that you had a marshmallow there, I think I would’ve failed, I don’t know about you.

Ayelet: You’re incentivized by marshmallows, huh Renee?

Renee: I was like, ah man. They found, the study, over decades, that the kids that weren’t able to delay gratification, we live in such an instant gratification world, that they had higher issues of problem in behavior, and learning in school, and then the kids that waited had higher SAT scores and those positive things.

Ayelet: And what age, remind us again, what age did they do that experiment with.

Renee: Three to five year olds.

Ayelet: Three to five year olds.

Renee: So, that preschool age.

Ayelet: So, some kids can be expected to have some sort of executive functioning and self regulation skills within that age range and some struggle with it. Which, of course, alludes to the fact that obviously, with toddlers, and older infants, of course, we’re gonna find that this a tough thing to manage.

Renee: Yeah, definitely.

Ayelet: How are these skills related to learning and play?

Renee: I think often times we think … I tie it to language with these toddlers and to be able to help simplify the language in their heads because they’re learning to self-regulate and control and try to process and understand it so I often, I like when … I think it was “The Happiest Toddler,” kind of said, speak to your toddler like a caveman. And he said state the obvious, you know like “I know it feels …” and often times when you talk to a toddler who’s angry they’re not listening to you. They shut down and stop listening to you. I often sit with my daughter and I’ll sit there and I’ll say, “I know this is tough and I feel angry,” and I’ll just leave it at that and later on I’ll have a conversation with her, where I say, remember when you were angry about xyz and she’ll look at me and go, “uh huh!”

It seems simple but it sets up the … she actually started these big emotions at 13 months and I remember she turned exactly 13 months and threw herself on the floor and I was like, what, this is happening to me? I remember going, okay, this can affect your play skills, right, because how are you going to socialize, how are you going to get to parallel play if you’re sitting there frustrated about taking something away from you? So I started that language processing, not outwardly but inwardly, I can see she’s starting to internalize that information and go, okay. Or I’ll say like … she’s an independent kid, she tends to be a Montessori type of kid, she wants to do everything herself, even more than a typical toddler, a little more than I’m expecting. And so I’ll often say, you can do hard things, because if she doesn’t get it in the first try she’s done, drops it and runs away. That can affect her in the long-term, executive functioning wise, because she doesn’t have the patience and the tenacity to stay with a project. You can see how it kind of, domino effects later on.

Ayelet: Right, because it’s all connected to this ability to have the patience to problem solve, to work through something, to like you said, impulse control, like, I’m feeling mad, how do I deal with that, right? I love how you said, and we’ll get more into this in a little bit but, the idea that you were providing this emotional language for her, you were acknowledging how she was feeling and then relating even how you were feeling and when we do that, when we use emotional language with our kids we are providing them the tools, so that’s fantastic and I can’t wait to hear more about that Renee, but for just a second we’re gonna take a brief break to hear a word from our sponsor and then we’re gonna hear a few tips and some resources from Renee about her favorite ways to make play more purposeful and some additional resources that she recommends to families that are interested in seeking out resources about this topic.

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The Community LAB is an all-in-one resource that is not one-size-fits-all. Join us in finding joy in the mayhem, at community.strengthinwords.com.

Okay Renee, let us hear some tips. What are some of those tips and strategies that you encourage families to integrate into their play to make that more purposeful and to integrate those executive functioning skills, or those emerging skills in terms of learning and brain development?

Renee: I started a bit with the emotional language with kids and being able to name their … I often use that, I also use my daughter’s … in this case, she has something she loves, this vaca, it’s a cow, and I often use her doll to talk to but I’ll plant seeds. I’ll plant a seed at bedtime, like right now we’re working on potty-training and I’ll either do it with the book or I’ll plant a seed … you can either make books or you can easily take pictures and send them out to those companies.

Ayelet: Those who print pictures, you mean?

Renee: Print picture books and then they send them back to you in a picture book just to help with … just to give her context, cause really that’s what we’re guiding to our children now to do, is getting context to their purpose and their play is their work, it’s their life, what they’re living right now. So, if your child’s in symbolic play you’re gonna give her context. So, I see you’re feeding the baby and babies like to be held and babies like to have bottles. So, you’re job as the parent/teacher of these littles is to help give them context in their world and help make those ties and connections. Another thing I think about is environment, I try to keep our play space really simple and not cluttered so much. I make like a cozy area for her to feel safe when she feels unsafe and wants to be rough and tumble and get that energy out because I think kids sometimes need that safe space. Right now, she does that a lot with her father, so they have a lot of that context of rough and tumble, or that feedback, because you know, littles are very sensory based, which they should be, we’re all sensory, but toddlers really have it more, they really seek it more than others. I would say definitely tie in, as they get older, board games to help with their working memory. They have Apples to Apples Jr. and they have … really simple ones, even a simple version of Candyland, and all those.

Ayelet: We’ve done some matching games and things like that.

Renee: Exactly, and socks, you can take two, when you do laundry lay out all your socks and have them help you match out which socks go with which ones. Also, simple one-step directions like, go throw that in the trash and come back to me, and then you run to two-step direction, like go get your coat and then get your shoes. You use your working memory and follow directions.

Ayelet: That’s great. My husband, just as an example, cause I love this and I think this is gold, my husband when my older son was two, three, almost three years old, he’d say, okay, I’m going to give you a mission and my son would get so excited, he’d say okay, what’s this special mission, right, what’s this special thing I get to do with my dad and he’d give him a one or a two or a three step diction, it was usually one or two, and then it would be like this fun thing and he’d come back for another mission. So, I love how this can be super simple and you’re taking a skill that, like you said, later on down the line kids would do these things naturally in things like board games, or table top tasks in kindergarten or elementary school, or even a preschool-type environment, but backing it up with our toddlers, this is wonderful. Just simplifying, literally, the laundry, I love that matching of socks, or I’ve done this, if you’re traveling, having two of the travel magazines and then cutting up the two pictures that are matching and finding the matching pictures, stuff like that. Those are kinds of things I have on the Strength In Words blog and I’ll link to that here as well. This is great I love it Renee. Keep going, let’s hear more.

Renee: That’s a great idea. I also say many social stories. You want to create flexible thinkers, problem solving and the demands of our world, we can easily … it’s hard with toddlers – making them flexible – but the demands of our world is that we need to create problem solvers, right? And we have problems in regards to solving but what I was saying about books that you can send out, which I didn’t get to finish that thought-

Ayelet: Sorry!

Renee: – was that basically, you’re creating a social story, and you’re telling it in the context of this child in their world, using what they understand of you and your family and your pictures. You can make it of anything, it could be as simple as we like to take a trip to the library. What do we do? We first put on our coats and shoes and then we go xyz and we drop off the books at the library and then we all sit and read a story. Social stories help kids to understand the world around them. We do it all the time when we read them books but I personally like them because as you get older you can just start giving … when they’re three or four or even two and half … they can look at the pictures and they can tell you the words and you can write them down. It’s something that can grow over time as opposed to just being dropped and then you have a nice collection of books together that you created. So, you have your own library of thinking stories.

Ayelet: That’s great. Yeah, that’s awesome. And guys if you remember, we talked about social stories a little bit with Leslie Hayden in a recent episode about raising and working with kids on the autism spectrum as well. Social stories are, like Leslie said and like Renee is saying, totally a wonderful tool to be used with any kid, any toddler. This age group is a perfect way to use familiar … like you were saying Renee, give them context for what they’re learning and what they’re experiencing, and that’s how they learn and that’s how they can develop those regulation skills and executive functioning skills. That’s awesome. Thank you. So, Social Stories by Carol Gray, we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. What are some other resources that you can share with us, as far as your favorites for families who’d like to learn more?

Renee: I like ‘Mind in the Making’ by Ellen Galinsky, her book is lovely, ‘The Happiest Toddler on the Block’ by Harvey Karp, he’s amazing, I just love his work, I think it really gears to busy parents and busy educators who are always trying to hone in their practices, and this is more for preschool aged kids but, ‘Smart But Scattered’ by Peg Dawson, she has like a series of books, goes even up to college aged students. It’s just nice to hear from … it’s not a one time thing, I think often times we think, oh, I did that already but it builds upon each other, so as it keeps building executive function just builds upon each other over time. It’s just skills upon skills. I like this series because it builds over time as opposed to a one specific season in your life.

Ayelet: Yeah, that’s lovely. It’s true and I love how you say that because all of these skills that we talk about, as far as infant and toddler development, they build upon each other. It’s all emerging skills, we’re not gonna see a child who … especially with things like, cognition and social emotional skills and with toddlers, some days they are making those connections and they can be empathetic or recognize their emotions, and some days and some moments they won’t be able to, and I think, as parents, as care-givers, that can be so infuriating because we know that they can do it some days or some specific seconds but then other times they just can’t. The more that we can do to mitigate that, and like you were giving at the beginning, the example of the grape, right, you were saying, “I knew it was too big so I just took it away,” but if you do those little things, like anticipate and acknowledge like, “oh that looks like a big grape. What do you think we should do? We might need to do something about that,” and just give them the little tools and of course, like Renee and like myself, we are not always going to be able to do that because we’re all human like our toddlers, but I love that. That’s great. Do you have any other favorite resources that you want to share with us?

Renee: This has more to do with quirks than anything else-

Ayelet: Quirks, you said?

Renee: Yeah, understood.org. So, understood.org deals with kids with disabilities from autism to dyslexic to all the range, and they have resources and they have parenting awards. Understood.org goes from actually, I believe, toddler to college aged students, and it’s a parent resource, teachers can use it too but geared towards parents. They just ask questions. It’s nice to have that feedback if you feel like your kid is inflexible for a long period of time than a typical milestone. You might see signs of autism or you might see some of those signs that you’re not sure if it’s happening. Understood.org is just a good resource.

Ayelet: Great. And then if people would like to learn a little bit more about you and what you have going on, Renee, where can they find you online?

Renee: Yeah, so I am at www.madeforyoulearning.com.

Ayelet: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Renee: Thank you!

Ayelet: Thank you so much, Renee, and thanks to all our Community LAB members who are here listening live so we’re going to now continue the discussion and open up for a Q and A session for you guys in just a minute but for everyone listening at home or on the go, thanks so much for joining us and we will see you next time.

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