Part Two

How Does Sunstone Nurture Executive Functions?

Last week in part one of this series we introduced the extremely important skill set called executive functions. If you missed this post you can catch up here. Typically thought of as the higher brain functions, executive skills are basically all of the skills that support learning and development, successful careers, and rewarding life outcomes. They are the skills that parents hope for, colleges look for, and employers in the 21st century actively seek out.

It’s important to understand that children are not born with executive function skills but they are born with the potential to develop them. And children will develop these skills if they get what they need from their relationships with adults and their environments at an early age.

This important skill set usually develops quickly during early childhood so young children who are exposed to environments that foster these skills have the greatest chance at success. Conversely, the development of executive skills can be seriously delayed without exposure to environments that foster these skills. The great news is that Montessori education has exactly what children need to develop these critical life skills!

Working Memory

Executive function skills fall into three main categories; working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. This week we will look at some of the ways that Sunstone Montessori directly fosters the development of Working Memory.

Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind and manipulate it. This skill is connected with perceptual and linguistic processing so it is fundamental to learning reading and math. It also plays an important role in concentration, remembering and following instructions, accessing information and paying attention!

Working memory is like a muscle. For it to develop you must work it, use it, and continually challenge it. In the Children’s House (ages 3-6) we use a variety of techniques in each area of the classroom to develop working memory.

Memory Games in the Sensorial Area

Memory Game with Geometric Solids – find objects in the classroom that are the same shape as the geometric solids

Memory Game with Color Tablets – find objects in the classroom that are the same color as the Color Tablets

In the sensorial area we play lots of games with the materials to help train the mind to hold information. The basic concept is simple:

  • one material
  • two locations
  • make a match or build a sequence across the distance holding the “needed” piece of information in your mind.

For example, after a child can successfully build the Pink Tower (above), a guide may invite them to play a memory game:

  • get out two rugs
  • place them “really far apart” in the classroom
  • bring all of the pieces of the Pink Tower to one rug (one at a time)
  • mix them up
  • build the Pink Tower all the way across the room on the second rug  – one piece at a time.

This sounds really simple, but when you think about everything this YOUNG child must do in order to accomplish this, it’s quite remarkable. They not only need to hold in their mind which piece they are looking for, but they must do this while they walk across a busy room, full of interesting activities and distracting conversations that easily pull their attention. And once they get to the other rug and find the exact piece that they need, they must carry it all the way back through the very tempting room without being distracted while also being very careful not to step on any work rugs or bump into any moving bodies. And in order to build the Pink Tower successfully, the child must do this TEN times! For a three year old that takes a great deal of focus, concentration, and self control.

As children grow older memory games can easily be adapted to continually challenge their developing minds. The Pink Tower, for example, can be matched across a distance to a set of cards. The cards can be sequential in order or, for more challenge, mixed up at random (as shown above). The cubes can be placed on one rug across the room or, for more of a challenge, the cubes can be spread over two or more rugs in different locations, or for even more of a challenge, placed randomly on top of shelves around the classroom. The variations and combinations that can be played with memory games are vast and they are not limited strictly to the sensorial materials. Memory games are as adaptable as the Guide is creative.

Task Sequence in the Practical Life Area

In the practical life area of the Children’s House classroom we develop working memory by introducing activities that, to be successful, require the memory of a sequence of tasks. We start a child with a simple sequence and introduce increasingly more complex sequences as the child’s ability to retain information develops.

For example we will give a three year old a lesson in pouring water with a simple five step sequence:

  • choose and save a table
  • gather the activity from the shelf
  • use the activity at the table for as long as you wish
  • soak up any spilled water with the sponge
  • returning the activity back to its place on the shelf ready for the next person

As the child’s skills develop we give them increasingly more complex activities with increasingly more complex sequences to remember such as Washing a Table (above) that has sequence of 16(+) steps to follow:

  • choosing and saving a table
  • gathering the materials from the shelf
  • putting on an apron
  • arranging the materials at the table (underlay, bucket, basin, pitcher, soap, sponge, wash cloth and dry cloth)
  • fetching the water
  • preparing the wash basin
  • soaping the brush
  • washing the table (in a proper sequence that also prepares their sub-conscious for reading and writing but that’s another blog)
  • rinsing the table
  • drying the table
  • rinsing out the wash basin (emptying the dirty water out, rinsing with clean water and emptying again)
  • drying the materials (basin, bucket, pitcher and anything else that may have gotten we else like the chair or floor)
  • taking the wet cloths to the laundry
  • fetching new clean cloths
  • arranging all of the materials on the tray
  • folding the apron
  • returning the activity back to its place on the shelf ready for the next person

Remembering increasingly complex sequences develops the ability to hold ever more complex information in your mind. Allowing children to work independently and choose activities that they have had lessons in allows them the opportunity to test, practice and refine their working memory every day and often.

The Three-Period Lesson and ‘Bring Me’ in the Language and Math Areas


In the language and math areas we utilize the three-period lesson and play ‘bring me’ to develop working memory.

The three-period lesson (above) is a particularly effective method of teaching new vocabulary and rote memorization. This simple method engages our language processing which is interdependent with memory and emphasizes the repetition of recall (in an engaging way) to attach language to concepts. A large part of successful working memory is being able to access or recall information and the three-period lesson trains our brains to do just that.

‘Bring me’ is another memory game used to strengthen recall. This very simple game can be played with anything that has a word associated with it and is often used in the Children’s House to solidify newly learned vocabulary and numbers.