Executive Functions Can Be Improved in Preschoolers Through Systematic Playing in Educational Settings: Evidence From a Longitudinal Study

Front Psychol. 2019 Sep 3;10:2024. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02024. eCollection 2019.


This study aimed to test the impact of play on the development of executive functions (EFs) in preschoolers. Thirty-two games were designed to be collectively played in groups by 70 children, in their regular classes. The games were specifically designed to promote the development of the three components of EFs: inhibition (behavioral or cognitive), working memory, and cognitive flexibility. The games focused on each function were of three types: playground games, expression games, and classroom games. Sixty 45 min play sessions were held on consecutive days for 3 months, always in the first period. The sessions were guided by two members of the research team, assisted by the four teachers of the participating classes. The intervention was carried out in two highly socially vulnerable schools in the city of Santiago de Chile. Four classes were studied in total: two experimental groups and two controls. The classes were selected using a questionnaire on teacher-student interaction quality and an age homogeneity criterion. EFs were evaluated using the Hearts and Flowers task at three points: before the intervention (T1), immediately after the end of the intervention (T2), and 8 months after the end of the intervention (T3). The results show a significant difference in the growth of EFs by comparing the experimental and control groups (p = 0.04) between T1 and T3. They also reveal a strong correlation between EFs measures at T1 and mathematics performance at T3. These results are discussed within the context of the guidelines proposed by Diamond and Ling (2016) and Barnett (2011) regarding what an EFs promotion program needs to be considered effective and high quality. The program presented in this study meets most of the requisites mentioned by the authors, which proves that following these guidelines guarantees a high probability of success.

Keywords: cognitive flexibility; executive functions; inhibitory control; intervention program; play; preschool; working memory.