Prefrontal Cortex Development: Mental Growth Activities for Kids

June 3, 2022
Mother and child playing with blocks together and working on prefrontal cortex development

If you wonder why your child’s first reaction to a clean living room is to dump a bin of LEGO on the floor, or why you have to ask them 25 times to get their shoes on before leaving the house, the answer lies in their prefrontal cortex. Our Raleigh child development programs focus on activities that inspire mental growth and healthy prefrontal cortex development in toddlers and babies. Join us as we share information about this part of your child’s brain, as well as activities that you can engage in with your baby or toddler to aid in healthy prefrontal cortex development.

What Is the Prefrontal Cortex?

Let’s look at what the prefrontal cortex is before we dive into looking at how to develop it. It’s part of the cerebrum in the very front of the brain, specifically behind the eyes and forehead. It controls the following processes: 

  • Emotional control
  • Logic and reasoning
  • Problem-solving
  • Memory
  • Focus and attention
  • Impulse control
  • Transitioning from one task to another

Because the brain develops back to front, this is the very last area of the brain to reach maturity, often not until around the early 20s. That doesn’t mean it isn’t used at all, it just takes time to develop! But if you worry that your child defaults to a tantrum, acts impulsively, or can’t easily shift their focus, rest assured, this is normal, especially in toddlers and young children.  

You’ll see similar behaviors when they reach their teenage years, as this area of the brain redevelops and they have to learn more complex social skills and emotional regulation. This is why you tend to see moodiness, lack of impulse control, procrastination, and similar challenges during this period. 

What Happens If the Prefrontal Cortex Is Underdeveloped?

While it’s normal for toddlers to not want to share or to throw tantrums, these behaviors should ease off as the prefrontal cortex develops. You can also take a proactive approach to help your child’s mental, social, and emotional development by teaching your child how to share, how to manage their feelings, how to be kind, and other milestones. Finding a trusted preschool or child development center that focuses on compassionate mental growth and early childhood education is another way to help your child grow and manage their feelings.

4 Activities for Toddlers to Improve Prefrontal Cortex Development

Now that you know what the prefrontal cortex does, let’s look at some activities designed to help develop it! Also, check out our favorite educational toys for children.

Use Stories to Teach Empathy

Toddlers begin developing empathy around two or three years old. You can support this development by reading a story to your child and asking them to imagine how the character feels. Other ways to support developing empathy include: 

  • Looking at characters in books and talking about the emotions the characters may be feeling. 
  • Validating your child’s emotions when they feel scared or upset and talk about times you experience these feelings.
  • Act with empathy towards others.   

Guided Practice to Regulate Feelings

Toddlers have big feelings, and this can be wonderful, but it can also be challenging. It’s important to recognize when a toddler or young child feels stressed and help them learn ways to calm themselves. This can include: 

  • Counting to 10 and visualizing their frustration dropping as they count.
  • Taking slow, deep breaths. 
  • Visualizing their “happy place” 

Most importantly, listen to their feelings and validate them because while it may not seem serious to you, the issue that upset your toddler is very serious to them. 

Developing the Ability to Follow Multi-Step Directions

If you tell your child, “Put your backpack on the hook, take off your shoes, then go potty,” only to find them playing with a toy while still wearing their shoes, it’s because they haven’t mastered the ability to follow multiple directions. They’re still focusing on one aspect and when that’s finished, they feel done. Help them learn this ability with these steps: 

  • Start with one direction at a time. It’s okay to wait until they finish one task before giving them something else to do. 
  • Move from one to two-step directions that work together, such as “Pick up your doll and put it in the toybox,” or “Scrape your plate in the trash and put it in the sink.” 
  •  When they master two-step directions, try two directions that don’t coordinate or try three-step directions. 

Try Goal Oriented Games

When faced with something new, children may feel scared to try it or decide it’s too hard before even trying. This is because they’re still developing executive function, but you can support this by playing games that teach children to listen, observe, and follow directions without getting upset or frustrated. 

  • Simon Says
  • Red Light/Green Light
  • Follow the Leader 

Don’t forget to let your child be Simon or the leader!

Schedule a Tour of Our 5-Star Preschool in Raleigh Today

At Primary Beginnings, we are dedicated to helping children learn and develop in a safe, nurturing environment. We are proud of having a five-star child care rating and strive to provide the highest level of quality care at every stage from infant and toddler through preschool and pre-kindergarten. Contact us to schedule a tour at our Spring Forest Road preschool in Raleigh or our North Hills Drive preschool in Raleigh.