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Brain Games for Executive Function

Sometimes, learning and playing don’t have to be separate activities. Nowadays, you can incorporate learning and practicing executive function skills with brain games. If you haven’t read our previous post about EF skills, it may be worthwhile to read more about executive functioning skills in general before jumping into the science of brain games.

In short, executive functioning refers to the cognitive domain that organizes the information that our brains take in and helps us decide how to deal with that information. This includes planning, sorting data, time management, emotional regulation, and other related skills. Even relatively subtle deficits in these areas can make it difficult to learn and thrive in daily life.

The Benefits of Puzzles and Brain Games

Puzzle games and brain teasers stimulate the mind and engage the brain in unique ways, challenging children to think flexibly to solve problems, which is one of the key factors in executive function. Even indulging in a crossword puzzle for an hour or two can help develop cognitive function and also improve language skills.

Studies have shown that a child’s brain develops more effectively when they interact with and manipulate the world around them. Playing games that challenge them to think outside of the box to solve problems provide a perfect opportunity for them to change and shape their environments in a positive way.

Another helpful aspect of puzzles and games is the way that they help children learn to prioritize. For example, while doing a jigsaw puzzle, they may start off by separating all of the border pieces or grouping pieces based on color. This sort of strategic thinking is beneficial because breaking larger tasks down into simpler, more achievable goals is an essential part of healthy executive functioning. Developing these skills in low-stakes environments can drastically improve a child’s performance and well-being in the future. 

While all of this sounds great as an abstract concept, it may be more helpful to take a closer look at the games that researchers have found to boost brain development. According to most experts, it’s never too early to think about executive functioning skills and how to develop them. Studies have found many of the common games that we play with toddlers and preschoolers are actually an excellent way to start teaching them these important skills. Songs like The Itsy-Bitsy Spider or Patty Cake incorporate hand motions with singing, stimulating working memory. To sing them, kids have to remember both the order of the verses and the actions that go along with them. Not only do these songs teach them to remember the order of the motions, they also encourage them to pay attention to which part of the song they’re singing as they keep their hand motions in pace with the lyrics. Developing working memory, awareness of timing during simultaneous actions, and sorting of data are crucial components for a developed brain.

Simple puzzles are another common activity for young children that has been shown to be very helpful. Aside from what we mentioned previously about prioritization, puzzles also require working memory and pattern recognition skills, both of which are important factors for the brain’s executive functions.

Experts also use simple sorting games to assess a child’s executive function. First, children are instructed to sort a deck of cards with different colored objects on them by the object shown. Next, they are told to sort the same cards again, but this time by color. While the children generally struggle with adapting to the change in rules, by continuing to play the game, they learn to think in a more organized, clear way, aiding their brain development. The results at this stage may not be especially noticeable, but as the child grows and develops into a young adult, they learn to inhibit the impulse to act out of habit and to keep track of multiple parameters at once.

As time goes on, the benefits of games and puzzles only increase. While the Itsy-Bitsy Spider may no longer be relevant for your child, there are copious amounts of age-appropriate games that can be extremely helpful. One such game that can be adapted as children get older is Simon Says. Simon Says is as productive as it is flexible, improving attention, impulse inhibition, and cognitive flexibility by creating a set of constantly changing directions.

Card games can also help children practice executive functioning by improving cognitive flexibility. Lots of card games are useful for teaching executive functioning skills at all ages. For example, in Uno, players must keep track of the order of play, which can change rapidly, as well as the colors and numbers in a more sophisticated way than the sorting games used for toddlers. Additionally, guessing games such as I Spy and 20 Questions teach kids how to think in categories and use their working memory to keep track of all of the criteria for the things they’re attempting to guess.

Puzzles and brain teaser books achieve a similar effect. Each child’s preferences may dictate which activities are the most beneficial, but these types of games generally increase one or more areas of executive functioning. Other games that require inhibition and focus include musical chairs, four square, dodgeball, and tetherball.

In terms of more modern games that children play, a recent study found that certain video games (Minecraft in particular) help build executive function because they require players to keep various fantasy locations in mind while following a set of rules (about how different characters and materials can be used) and developing strategies to meet the goals and objectives of the game.

While most people recognize the importance of games in brain development for children, many underrate the importance of similarly stimulating games and activities for adolescents and teenagers. As with younger children, strategy games and logic puzzles exercise working memory, planning, and attention. There are also many board games that are great for teens, such as Taboo or Apples to Apples, which can be both fun and social all while requiring complex thinking and inhibition control that are essential to maintaining high levels of executive functioning. Strategy games like Risk as well as resource-management games like Settlers of Catan are also excellent sources of stimulation for the adolescent brain.

In essence, executive function is like any other skill. It can grow stronger or weaker through training or neglect. Finding fun, creative ways to maintain and develop high levels of executive function can pay dividends in the classroom and beyond.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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