how to improve executive functioning skills in children with games

How You Can Improve Executive Functioning Skills Of Children With Games

Playing These Games Can Actually Help Children Of All Ages Develop Some Great & Useful Skills

There has been lots of talk about something called "executive functioning" and how important it is. Take this 2019 Stanford-led study by Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Jelena Obradović for example. The study identified what factors keep kids resilient.

According to Obradović, “We chose to study executive functions because they’re an important set of skills that promote adaptation and resilience. They’ve become a good marker for children’s capacities.”

Since everyone is talking about it now, you're probably wondering what executive functioning actually means.

What Is Executive Functioning

Even though it sounds like something related to a chief executive officer, it is not about being a CEO. Well, unless the company we are talking about is just you, making you your own CEO. The word executive refers to having the power to put plans into effect and it is a key part of what executive functioning stands for.

Here's the definition of executive functioning as per the most trusted resource out there (and certainly not the most prone to random people editing information online), Wikipedia:

Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.​

Executive functioning lets us be disciplined enough to work towards a certain goal without getting side-tracked. For example, if we were studying for a test and aiming for a grade A, we would make sure to have enough self-control and focus to keep studying instead of getting distracted.

When we break down executive functioning, we get some specific skills that Harvard highlights as "the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully". Namely skills like, planning, working memory, self-control, self-awareness, attention, flexibility, and drive. These skills build up the core of what helps us function effectively and progress in today's world.

Can you recall coming across any of the following situations?

  • Forcing yourself to get through a task even though you want to watch the latest new episode of your favorite show?
  • Listening to someone talk even though what they are saying is boring you to death?
  • Failing to do something but decided to try again?
  • Remembering a large amount of information without noting it down?

Well, guess what? These situations all rely on executive functioning!

We would all probably agree that this is a core capability, not just in the context of studies but for all the endeavors we have in life. So how do we develop it?

Would you believe me if I told you that playing games can help one improve their executive functions? Well you better, because they do!

Executive Functioning at Different Ages

Harvard published a list of activities and games that can positively impact someone's executive functioning. But the list is different for different age groups. We will be looking at three groups - 5 to 7 years old, 7 to 12 years old kids and adolescents.

These groups have very different focuses. Think back to when you were 7 years old, were your goals in life the same as when you became a teenager? Most probably not. Since our priorities keep shifting as we grow older, we need different approaches for each age group.

In order to decide what kind of games suit each age group, we need to understand what the focus for each age group is.

infographic on what skills children need to develop by different age groups

Source: Potato Pirates

Even though there are overlaps in which skills matter for each age-group, there is a trend in terms of the kind of skills that are developed at each age. As we grow older, we learn how to improve ourselves and how to solve or adapt to problems. This prepares us for situations we will come across as we start making more independent decisions and interacting with more people.

In fact, Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, mentioned the importance of the right mindset in having a successful life. She mentions the power of a "Growth Mindset" and how one can get this mindset.

She is not the only one who thinks such a mindset leads to success. Countless academics and professionals have expressed why they think a growth mindset is better compared to a fixed mindset.

Take a look at this recreation of a graphic by brainpickings based on Dweck's book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" which highlights the differences between the two mindsets.

Infographic on the characteristics on 2 different mindsets, Fixed and Growth

Source: Recreation of Infographic by Nigel Holmes on brainpickings

While a fixed mindset holds one back from learning and improving their skills, the growth mindset allows one to, like the name says, grow and learn from challenges.

It's easy, however, for one to claim that they already have a growth mindset or that their executive functioning is great. But here's the catch, if you think you already have all the skills you need, you are leaning towards the fixed mindset! Did that blow your mind? Of course, it did.

Games for Executive Functioning

A lot of people would assume that learning these skills would be a boring or tiring task but here's the thing, executive functions can be built on fun activities such as sports and learning music. Although we associate games with leisure or health, it can also be useful in teaching life skills and lessons, especially to kids.

That is why if you search up activities to teach kids executive functioning, you would find that there are quite a number of games mentioned.

Take the board game "Battleship" for example. The game allows for players to carefully plan and direct their attention to different areas of their map in order to prevent their ships from getting destroyed. It also lets them develop selective attention as they need to keep track of where the enemy ships might be located.

It is not just board games that teach skills either. Sports is another great way to develop certain skills. To find out what games are best for which skills, I have put together a list for you here arranged based on the three age groups we are looking at - 5 to 7 years old, 7 to 12 years old, and adolescents. The skills that the games teach are shown by the very cool spider diagrams.

Games for 5 to 7 Years Old 

At this age, a challenge can help children develop skills, so we choose games that are hard but not too difficult for each child.

Battleship

Skills acquired by kids from playing Battleships board game

Battleship makes players think of and remember their opponent's set up, while simultaneously taking note of the new information coming in. Alongside this, they also need to pay attention to their opponent.

Concentration

Skills acquired by kids from Concentration game

Concentration is a simple game that relies on memory as well as making choices as to which cards might match. The great part of this game is that it has such an easy framework that we can adapt it to be more educational as well. Take this great idea by 'education world' for example!

Rush Hour

Skills acquired by kids from Rush Hour game

Left image Source: Wikipedia - Rush Hour (puzzle)

This ThinkFun game uses a lot of strategic thinking and cognitive flexibility. The idea behind it is simple - get the car out of the traffic jam. But the puzzles that the game provides really challenge players into thinking of different ways to solve them.

What Time Is It Mr Fox?

Skills acquired by kids from What Time Is It Mr Fox game 

Left image source: What Time Is It Mr. Fox? Game - YouTube 

This classic game is not just fun to play for all ages but it also teaches some great skills. A major part of the game is counting while also having to pay attention to what time "Mr Fox" is trying to say. Players also have to decide on strategies such as when to take smaller steps and when to take longer steps. 

Simon Says

Skills acquired by kids from Simon Says game 

Left image source: Wikipedia - Simon Says

Who would have thought that Simon Says is a game that could teach us skills? Well, turns out that this is a great way to teach attention, inhibition and cognitive flexibility. That's not all - it can also be made educational! This activity uses Simon Says to teach kids coding.

Games for 7 to 12 Years Old  

At this age, we steadily increase the difficulty of games and activities.

Dungeons & Dragons

Looks like the kids from Stranger Things were onto something when they were playing some D&D. While this game might have been called nerdy or other names, it is a great way to improve working memory and quite a few other skills.

Potato Pirates Series

Skills acquired by kids from Potato Pirates game, other than coding programming

Board games can be very educational. Potato Pirates Games is able to teach coding concepts and even cyber-security know hows through  fun card and board games and these kind of games are great because they allow for players to strategize attacks while also having to pay attention to the other players' moves and as well as learn about new subjects of topics to learn from a young age.

Constellations

Skills acquired by kids from Dungeons and Dragons game

Left image source: xtronaut

Did you know that Mensa awards board games every year that they think are original, challenging, and well-designed? In 2018, they picked 'Constellations' which is a game that requires players to solve puzzles and form constellations. This is a great game to not just learn about the stars but to also train players' cognitive flexibility.

Ghost In The Graveyard

Skills acquired by kids from Ghost In The Graveyard game

Don't worry, it's not as spooky as it sounds. The game is a blend between hide-and-seek and tag. Overall, it is a fun yet great way to teach selective attention, monitoring, and inhibition.  

Laser Tag

Skills acquired by kids from Laser Tag game

Left image source: Lazgam Laser Games

Laser Tag is a lot of fun and very exciting for all ages, which is what makes it awesome. While having to stay alert, players are also forced to think of how to survive while simultaneously working alongside their team.

Adolescent

Chess

Skills acquired by kids from Chess game

Chess is a classic board game and it is a great way to train players' planning through coming up with tactics to win as well as attention as they have to pay attention to their opponent's moves.

Raiders of the North Sea

Skills acquired by kids from Raiders of the North Sea game

Left image source: Renegade Game Studios

Plundering may not sound like the best way to teach skills but this Mensa Select Winner is a really fun game that can improve planning and attention. Players can't just make moves but have to be careful how they plunder as well.

Imagine

Skills acquired by kids from Imagine game

Left image source: Gamewright

Creativity is really important and 'Imagine' is a game that allows players to explore just that. With everyone having to come up with ideas and guess other players' ideas, this game is able to teach attention and problem-solving.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Skills acquired by kids from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword game

Left image source: Nintendo 

Turns out video games aren't as bad as people make them out to be. 'Legend of Zelda' is a game that challenges selective attention, monitoring, working memory, and inhibition as players navigate through new surroundings while having to react quickly.   

Basketball

Skills acquired by kids from Basketball game

Left image source: MN Girls' Basketball Hub

Sports is a great way to teach skills since it is fun but at the same time requires cooperation, decision-making, as well as quickly responding to situations during the game. Basketball is a fast-paced game that makes those playing develop a spirit of teamwork and improve attention.

Related: Why Student-Centered Learning Matters And How To Apply It

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