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10 amazing brain-builders for kids

Here are 10 great games, activities and techniques that help preschoolers develop the brain through play.

By John Hoffman
10 amazing brain-builders for kids

Photo: iStockphoto

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Pretend or dramatic play

“During dramatic play, children must hold their own role and the roles of others in mind,” explains Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.

How it helps: [This] exercises their working memory. They have to stay in character, which helps with their inhibitory control. And they have to adjust to the twists and turns in the evolving plot, which requires them to think flexibly.”

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

Storytelling

Another rich activity is storytelling, which requires the listening kids to pay attention for long periods.

How it helps: As Diamond explains, listening to a story “promotes a different area of brain development than what kids get from reading a picture book.” When kids listen to a story, she says, “they use their working memory to keep track of the characters and what has happened so far, and relate that to new information as the story progresses.”

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

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Obstacle course

Set up a course where your child has to go under and over various barriers (like couch cushions and coffee tables) and through tunnels. Varying the course or increasing its complexity will help to keep your child challenged.

How it helps: “Being able to control your body and plan physical actions is a fundamental part of learning how to manage your brain,” says Stuart Shanker, distinguished professor of psychology and philosophy at York University and one of Canada’s leading experts in early brain development. “So any activity that works on the child’s coordination and requires him to figure out how to do a multi-step actions to achieve a goal, is good for executive function, particularly if you keep adding new variations to the game.”

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

Using a timer

“When are we going swimming?” Preschoolers not only have enormous difficulty waiting, they don’t understand how long a half hour is. One way to make the wait a little easier for kids (and parents!) is to set a timer and let the child watch it count down until it’s time to go.

How it helps: “Timers, including egg timers, digital microwave timers and wind-up kitchen timers give children a visual representation of time counting down,” says Diamond. “This helps them learn to plan and pace themselves.”

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

Simon says

You remember the interactive game Simon Says, don’t you? If not, your friend Google can help.

How it helps: “When someone says, ‘Touch your nose,’ every young child’s impulse will be to touch her nose,” says Diamond. “But, in order to succeed in the game, the child has to listen and wait for the words, Simon Says.”

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

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I Spy…

Another interactive game, I Spy, is ideal because it involves planning. Kids have to connect the verbal clue with what they can see around them, and must adjust their plan as they get more information in the form of clues. “You’re getting colder” tells the child she’s searching in the wrong direction, and “You’re getting warmer” tells her she’s close.

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

Making cookies

Kids love mucking with (and eating!) cookie dough. Depending on your child’s age and dexterity (and your tolerance for kitchen chaos) he can help you measure out ingredients, or just add them pre-measured.

How it helps: “Following a recipe requires a child to work within a plan, and to keep ‘updating’ the plan as they think about what has been done so far, and what needs to be done next,” Diamond says.

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

Feely or sensory bag

Put familiar toys or objects in a cloth bag (plastic toy animals work well), and have a child stick his hand in the bag and try to guess what object he is holding just from how it feels.

Variation: The child feels the objects from the outside of the bag.

How it helps: Feely bag requires working memory too, but it also requires kids to connect sensory information (in this case the shape and texture of the object) with their internal picture of what the animal looks like.

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

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Concentration games

It’s not that any of these specific activities are magic. They don’t give kids instant executive function; that develops gradually throughout childhood and adolescence. And lots of other activities provide similar sorts of brain exercise. Card games require concentration, which exercises working memory.

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

Painting and colouring

Colouring and painting require sustained attention. What all these activities have in common is that kids are doing: using their bodies, their minds and their senses at the same time in ways that help them understand how to use their brain power to make things happen.

10 amazing brain-builders for kidsPhoto: iStockphoto

Read more: 6 surprising brain-builders for preschoolers Your kids NEED to play—here’s why 8 everyday ways to boost your baby’s brain

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