Parents who want to stimulate their children’s brain development often focus on things like early reading, flashcards and language tapes. But a growing body of research suggests that playing certain kinds of childhood games may be the best way to increase a child’s ability to do well in school. Variations on games like Freeze Tag and Simon Says require relatively high levels of executive function, testing a child’s ability to pay attention, remember rules and exhibit self-control — qualities that also predict academic success.
“Play is one of the most cognitively stimulating things a child can do,” says Megan McClelland, an early-childhood-development researcher at Oregon State University who has led much of the research.
The key to games education is to start with a simple game and add increasingly complicated rules. For instance, Oregon researchers have developed a game called Head-to-Toes, which they use to assess preschool children’s development. Initially, the child copies the teacher’s movements, touching her head or toes. But later, the child is expected to do the opposite, touching her toes when the teacher touches her head.
While the game may sound simple, it actually requires a high level of cognitive function for a preschooler, including focus and attention, working memory to remember rules, mental flexibility (to do the opposite) and self-control.
“We tend to equate learning with the content of learning, with what information children have, rather than the how of learning,” says Ellen Galinsky, a child-development researcher and author of “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” “But focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success.”
Research shows that children who develop focus and self-control early in life have better academic achievement in the long term. One study of 814 children between ages 3 and 6 shows that children who do well in Simon Says-like games do better in math and reading. A smaller study of 65 preschool children found that those who started the school year with low levels of self-control showed improvement after playing games in class, including a version of Red Light, Green Light.
An Oregon State study reported on 430 children who were followed from preschool until age 25. The study, published online earlier this month in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, looked at several factors, including early reading and math skills, along with other cognitive skills, to see which were ultimately most influential in college success. It turns out that a child’s ability at age 4 to pay attention and complete a task, the very skills learned in game play, were the greatest predictors of whether he or she finished college by age 25.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 2, 2012
The credit for an illustration on Aug. 26 with an article accompanying the Well column was omitted. It was by James Provost.