Yesterday, my two-year-old son and his buddies struck up an impromptu game of tee-ball in the back of our house. My husband was coaching, helping each of them rotate batting while the others ran to the “outfield.” The concept of waiting and sharing was clearly a work in progress: One grabbed the whole tee itself and ran off behind the parked cars every time her turn was up, another picked up a broom and started sweeping leaves in between at-bats. And anytime anyone else in the game made contact with the ball, my son yelled at the top of his lungs, “It’s my turn now!”
But as I watched them, I was still impressed with how their little minds were working on (albeit rough) cooperative play. A year ago this game would have been a hot mess of crying, falling, and wandering off, but now our kids were loosely following rules and paying attention. Really?
The reason we were able to pull off this mini sporting event is that, gradually, these kids are showing signs of what is called “executive function,” a highly advanced set of skills involving impulse control, planning, and abstract thought. Indeed, many scientists and clinicians believe that these capacities are just as important (if not more so) than natural smarts when it comes to achievement.
Delaying gratification, focusing, and imagining future possibilities – it’s not hard to see why these could come in handy. The implications for school and career are clear, but social skills are also on the line (as in the case of the tee-ball game). Luckily for my son and his friends, executive control is not fixed. We practice this ability throughout childhood, and certain types of play give it an especially good workout.