Chances are, ever since your children were babies, you’ve tried to surround them with positive learning experiences. Now that they’re older — and free time is a scarce commodity — it only makes sense that you’d like some of that “down time” to be spent in brain-enriching activities.
The good news is that kids can boost their brain capacity while having fun. The trick is to find something that will challenge your child — and that they enjoy doing.
Alvaro Fernandez, M.B.A., M.Ed., and CEO and co-founder of SharpBrains, an online organization that provides information on brain fitness, stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology has allowed scientists to study live brains for the first time in history. Their research has found that brains are “plastic,” meaning they can create new neurons and change their structure. This is especially true of the frontal lobe, which controls our ability to pay attention, plan ahead and direct behavior toward achieving a goal — all skills we want our children to develop.
Novelty, variety, challenging games
Fernandez says that the four pillars of brain health are physical exercise, a balanced diet, stress management and brain exercise. He says that the three factors that make for good brain exercise are novelty, variety and challenge. “If something is new, it’s good. In general, things are good as long as they keep being challenging,” says Fernandez. “If the child is learning new strategies, enjoying the game, it’s good. If it becomes boring, it’s not having any benefit. What matters is how the child is motivated.”
That advice is echoed by D’Arcy Lyness, a practicing psychologist and editor for kidshealth.org. Lyness explains that different games promote different skills. Some focus more on memory, others on problem solving; brain teasers help develop creativity and mental flexibility. Lyness advises putting together a wide range of brain games and activities “so kids can tone all their mental muscles.”
Brain-boosting games for kids
Here are some brain games that are known to help boost learning ability:
Chess is an obvious choice, with school districts all over the world integrating the brain game into their curriculums. It has been used in Russian schools for more than 40 years as a means to increase students’ problem-solving and reasoning skills. Research conducted in the ‘70s and ‘80s found that chess players develop complex and efficient structures for memory storage and management.
On Frank Ho’s Math and Chess website, an article by Marcel Milat states that the American Chess Foundation’s Chess in Schools program was responsible for a 17.3 percent increase in math test scores for participating students in New York’s Harlem School District — compared with only 4.6 percent for those participating in other enrichment programs.
Sudoku is a popular logic puzzle game that is played solo, so it’s great for travel or waiting rooms. Though it uses numbers, sudoku is not about mathematics. Instead it requires logic, memory and concentration. Can these skills boost a child’s learning ability? According to Associated Content, “Great Britain’s government has recommended sudoku puzzles be used in the classroom as brain exercises.” The brain game is available in a variety of skill levels from easy to very difficult and is available in book form, electronic hand-held units and, of course, online. Many newspapers print a daily sudoku puzzle alongside the crossword puzzle.
Crossword puzzles, word jumbles and word searches are also easily available, inexpensive brain game choices for the solo player. Just remember Fernandez’s three guides of novelty, variety and challenge.
Board games are a great way to involve the whole family in brain-building activities. Be sure to choose games that require players to use strategy to determine the outcome, rather than just rely on the roll of the dice. Games like Scrabble, Clue, and 20 Questions are better choices than games like Candy Land or even Monopoly.
There’s been a lot of press about digital games that claim to “build the brain.” Unfortunately, most of the research that has been done applies to older people trying to prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia. Digital games that increase in difficulty as the player masters a level are the best choice to keep those neurons expanding.
Other brain boosters for kids
Brain games, however, are not the only end to building brains. Remember, anything that challenges your child will have a positive effect.
Academic types can learn a new language. There are some great online sources for free or inexpensive study guides, and many elementary schools now offer foreign languages as part of their curriculum.
Young athletes can try a new sport. Encourage your soccer player to join a basketball team in winter or sign up for tennis lessons. Football players can take a dance class. Ballet dancers can try rock climbing.
Homebodies can investigate various crafts such as knitting, crochet or sewing. Stores such as JoAnn Fabrics and Seattle’s Retroactive Kids offer a variety of classes on everything from sewing to jewelry-making to scrapbooking and even cake decorating.
The point is to mix it up and try something new every so often. The novelty will keep those neurons growing and enrich your child’s mind with new experiences, and, perhaps, set a pattern they will continue throughout their lives. The old credo holds true for the brain, as with any muscle: “Use it or lose it.”
Andrea Leigh Ptak lives in South Seattle with her husband and daughter, and is an admitted sudoku addict.
Websites with brain games for kids
These websites offer a variety of free or inexpensive brain games to download or play online:
Switched features what it considers to be the best online games for free.
Suite 101.com offers links to a variety of free games on various Web sites, from PBS Kids to World Almanac for Kids.
Topshareware.com features a variety of shareware games.
iKnowthat.com is primarily a site for homeschoolers, but offers an assortment of fun games for a wide range of ages.
Kids Games has a special spot filled with games for 6- to 10-year-olds.
Kalama.com showcases dozens of game Web sites that have both printable and online options.
123KidzGames.com has both free games and games to purchase.
Smart Kit Brain Gym and Puzzle Playground offers a variety of free games as well as ones to purchase. It also has articles on the science of brain exercise.