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meta cognition

Executive Function Skills in the Outdoors

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Executive functioning skills are a “family” of skills that operate in a “top-down” process, controlling and regulating brain regions associated with attention, impulse control, emotion regulation, and meta-cognition or “thinking about thinking.” For more information about executive function skills, please refer to my previous NESCA blog “Teenage Stress and Executive Functioning.” As an evaluator, I often emphasize two key points about executive function skills: (1) Developing executive function skills is a combination of brain development and life experience; and (2) These skills are built through interactions (with others and our world) and practice.

Now with more access to New England summer weather, there are plenty of opportunities for children and teens to grow executive function skills in interaction with the natural world. I recommend a “must-download” if you want to review practical, science-based activities and games for children from the ages of six months old through adolescence, “Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence.” This is a wonderful resource that provides a clear list and description of practical activities to strengthen executive function skills based on a child’s age. This resource was developed by The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a multidisciplinary team supporting research, policy, and practice for childhood development. Their website also provides excellent free resources for parents, clinicians, and educators related to topics such as stress, resiliency, play, and brain structure/development.

Here is a short list of outdoor summer executive function activities based on your child’s developmental age:

  1. 6-18 months-old: Peekaboo and Patty-Cake on the grass and other textures, such as dirt, mud, water, or wood (a multi-sensory experience), encourage joint attention and object focus by naming, pointing, and sustaining focus on natural objects at the beach or in the woods.
  2. 18-36 months-old: Match/sort natural objects, such as placing rocks in one bucket and flowers in another bucket, blow bubbles with a variety of wand shapes, pretend play as fishermen, construction workers, or farmers/gardeners.
  3. 3-5 years-old: Pretend to be an outdoor superhero in an obstacle course or race (e.g., running through Hula Hoops or around traffic cones), assist with cooking/preparing an outdoor picnic, or make a nature bracelet.
  4. 5-7 years-old: Play the I-Spy game and participate in scavenger hunts, use strategy board games (e.g., Uno, Concentration) on land or maybe even in the water, go on a sensory walk (name something you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch).
  5. 7-12 years-old: Star-gaze and find/name constellations, create a bird house or other wood structure through woodworking activities, garden one or more plants, play with a super soaker toy or laser/flashlight tag.
  6. Adolescents: Maintain a summer sketching and drawing journal of natural objects, participate in sunrise or sunset yoga or dance classes, outdoor animal-assistant yoga (e.g., Goat Yoga), or sports-oriented camps and activities.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.