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Focused or Frazzled? Support the ‘Air Traffic Control System’ of Your Child’s Brain

If your child is involved in organized sports, you’ve probably noticed that at practices and games, some children are focused, listening to the coach and doing what they are asked, whereas other children seem to be doing anything but - daydreaming, fidgeting, watching the birds fly by or picking dandelions. What allows some children to stay focused and on task despite all the distractions?

Executive function is a set of mental skills

Scientists are learning more about an extremely important part of the brain, which they have dubbed “executive function.” It’s a set of mental skills that work like the air traffic control tower at a busy airport, and it’s a key part of development in the early years. This part of your child’s brain allows your child to remember, focus, plan and respond to changing circumstances. It begins to develop at about three years old and continues to develop well into the mid-20s.

All of us who fly on airplanes rely on the critical functioning of the air traffic control tower to manage the arrivals and departures of many planes on multiple runways. Under a variety of conditions, including fatigue, turbulent weather and unforeseen emergencies, the air traffic controllers in the tower must keep track of planes taking off, landing and in the air. Your child’s executive function skills allow them to coordinate multiple types and streams of information to determine what to do.

Danger, danger! Distractions!

In a control tower, distractions can be dangerous! Your child’s executive function skills allow them to prioritize those multiple streams of information, manage distractions and focus carefully on the task at hand. Conditions at an air traffic control tower change often so it’s important to be able to re-prioritize or change directions when necessary. One element of executive function is cognitive flexibility, which allows your child to shift attention from one task to another.

Finally, air traffic controllers are well prepared - it takes training, ongoing practice and time to become an excellent air traffic controller. Likewise, your child’s executive function skills are learned beginning in early childhood, and taking around 20 years to fully develop through continual practice. Executive function skills are foundational to learning; they are the processes that enable your child to learn. Physical literacy activities are an excellent way to help your child develop their mental airspace!

How physical literacy helps to develop your child’s mental airspace

Physical literacy - the motivation, confidence and competence to move for a lifetime - is an excellent route to supporting the development of executive function. Each of the three elements of physical literacy relates directly to executive function - the skills required by an air traffic control system.

An active body builds a healthy brain, for a lifetime.

Physical literacy

How parents can help

What children learn (how it develops executive function)


Role model active play

Play with your children

Provide many opportunities to play

Joy of participation

Focus on activity

Take turns

Seek opportunities
to play

Develop an active


Provide structured and unstructured play opportunities

Offer a variety of recreation and sport opportunities so children can discover what they love most

Avoid over-scheduling and keeping children too busy

Discover what they love

Filter distractions

Emotional regulation:
accept disappointment,
cheer good play,
be a good winner
and a good loser

Apply different rules in
different settings

Become a good team

Motivated to become


Provide skill building opportunities (good coaching)

Begin to focus on favorite activities

Help to establish short- and long-term goals for school, recreation/sport, arts, citizenship


Plan ahead: organize
time to complete
homework and chores as well as play

Set goals: short term
within a practice or
game, longer term
to achieve milestones

Filter out distractions
that may sway from goals

Switch gears when
one route to the goal
isn’t working

Dawne Clark is a professor at Mount Royal University’s Centre for Child Well-Being. Her focus is on early brain development. Active for Life,, is a Canadian not-for-profit social enterprise founded by B2ten, for Life is a national initiative created to help parents give their children the right start in life through the development of physical literacy. As seen on Active for Life and reprinted with permission from Active for Life.



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