Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Play is a powerful learning tool. When children are playing and enjoying themselves, they naturally pay attention. It's easy to focus when you're having fun. That's why I use games when I want children to learn something. If I'm teaching a young child to recognize colors, for example, instead of pointing to colors on a chart, it is so much easier for her to remember colors if she throws a ball at all the red boxes and knocks them down. And, next, at all the yellow boxes. And, to make life simple, the boxes are just milk cartons covered in colored paper.

Or if I want an older child to learn how to spell the words on his spelling test, I lay down a shower curtain on which I have written all the letters of the alphabet and have him hop to the letters in his words. It's easier to remember that a word ends in a silent "e" if he has to leap all the way from the letter "n" to get to it. Muscles have memory, too.

Besides using games to develop cognitive and attention skills, I also use lots of games to teach motor skills. It matters if a child is good at recess so I want children to have good motoric skills such as balance, eye-hand coordination and muscle control so they can play all the games the other kids play. Social skills are learned through play.

Even self-esteem can be nurtured through games.

Imagine this self-esteem game. Say, everyone in the family or in the classroom has to come up with a movement that goes with their name. So, say, Susan comes up with Swaying Susan and everyone has to repeat "Swaying Susan", Swaying Susan" and move just like her. Susan gets to hear everyone saying her name (the most precious sound in the world) and imitating her movements. It can't help but make her feel noticed and feel special. And if Jumping Jessie and Twirling Tommy gets the next turns, everyone gets to feel good about their own unique and individual diversity.

But the hot new news right off the Neuroscience press is that not only does play focus and alert the mind, it also has a significant role in developing the brain. We are all born prematurely, as far as the brain is concerned. Our organs and our muscles are all fully developed at birth but just smaller than they will be. But the newborns brain has mainly the ancient brain stem whose job is to alert us if we are in danger and a cerebellum for movement and balance. The rest of the brain is made up of 100 billion undeveloped nerve cells (neurons) like a jumbled mass of electrical wires that aren't connected. As we have meaningful experience, we begin to connect these neurons to form patterns that let us know, for example, that a certain voice, a certain face and a way of being held means it’s time to nurse or our diaper is being changed.

Other sensory information helps us recognize Dad or the rough older brother or the dog. And each time these connections are made, patterns of understanding and awareness are formed in the brain that increase our complexity and intelligence.

Neuroscientists found out the significance of the role of joyful play through brain imaging. When they took pictures of children's brain right after they were engaged in an enjoyable meaningful multisensory activity, there were actual immediate changes in the brain. New synaptic connections between the neurons were actually visible in the brain scan and the brain had literally become more complex. There were no changes noticed in the brain imaging of children who had not been engaged, who had instead been watching television or not involved in an activity that particularly interested them.

To quote Stuart Brown, M.D., psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and the founder of the National Institute for Play,

"Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. It shapes the brain."

In brain-speak, stimulating experiences activate certain neural synapses and this triggers growth processes that consolidate those connections. Rich experiences, in other words, really do produce rich brains

So, not only is it smart to play games, games make you smarter!

The sad news is that synapses that are not activated progressively wither over time. Those 100 billion cells get pruned away through the "use it or lose it" principle

Even worse, while positive experiences can help brighten a child’s future, negative experiences can do the opposite. Deprived of a positive, stimulating environment, a child’s brain suffers. Stressful experiences also shape a child’s developing brain. When children are faced with physical or emotional stress or trauma, one of the stress-related systems “turns on” by releasing the hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol can cause brain cells to die and reduces the connections between the cells in certain areas of the brain.

Babies with strong, positive emotional bonds to their caregivers and enjoyable playful experiences in their lives show consistently lower levels of cortisol in their brains

Further proof is a study, completed at the Baylor College of Medicine, which showed that babies who had the chance to play often and who were held and touched often as infants, have larger brains with more neural pathways than children who received less playful attention and care when they were babies.

Play is essential to a child's development and children like to play. It is what they do and how they learn.

We parents are in the prime position to continue to enlarge our children’s brains through play. But, with work and other obligations and especially if we weren't played with as children by our parents, it may feel that we don't have the time or knowledge to add "playtime" to our over- burdened schedules.

This article hopes to show you that we don't need a lot of time or special equipment and that we all have within us a sense of play. The suggestions below will feel do-able and can be done with a moment here, a moment there and with no more materials than a good mood.

Try out some of these ideas for a spontaneous game or let them inspire you to do others. Your children will think they are just having fun, but you'll know they are making new synaptic connections!


For example, the next time you’re outside or are looking out the window together, notice the shapes of the clouds. You know this game. You’ve seen clouds that form dinosaurs and puffy headed crocodiles. Identify shapes together and make up stories about what the dinosaur is saying to the crocodile. If your experience is like mine, children, especially young children, don’t look at you and say “How would I know?” but instead look at you as if to say, “Dummy, why don’t you know—it’s obvious the dinosaur is about to eat the crocodile." At which point you point out the looming bear shape and ask, “So whose side is that bear on?” and the story and fun unfolds.


Or when you're outside sitting on the grass, pretend there is a little teeny sprite living there and figure out where that sprite would go to eat dinner or what would it use for plates and where would it go if it wanted to slide down something fun.


When you are going for a walk, even if it’s a walk you’ve done many times, play the game of “I see something new” and notice something you hadn’t noticed before such as the leaf shapes in the rod iron pattern around the neighbor’s mailbox. Or maybe you'll notice that the bush has flowers in different stages. There is a bud, another flower in full bloom and one going to seed. This could lead to a discussion about ages. How old is grandma? How old do you guess Barney or Big Bird. What is the age of that tree? That could lead to finding a tree stump and counting the ring.


Before you go outside, tape a piece of tape, sticky side out, around your wrists and take a moment to look around and adorn them with whatever you see such petals and leaves and pine needles.When you get home, cut them off and tape them up on the refrigerator to remind you of the fun exploring moments.


If your child isn't allergic to peanuts, take a second while the child isn't looking or is napping, to hide peanuts in their shells here and there in the house (or yard). Make some hiding places easy to see and some trickier to find to fit your children's skills. Challenge them to find the peanuts and to count how many they find.


Writing invisible letters on a child’s back or palm is a fun way to write a secret message and requires connecting the sense of touch with cognition.

Have your child sit with his back to you and a pad of paper and pencil in front of him. Using your finger “draws” a letter on your child’s back or palm. At the same time, your child draws on the paper what he thinks is being drawn on his back.

Keep writing letter by letter until a whole message is given. The message could be a clue to where a treat is hidden!

Take turns so you both get to experience what it feels like.

Have an older child play this game with a younger sibling as a fun way to help him learn his letters and grow his brain.


Sit in front of a mirror with your darlin'. You both have felt tip pens. Trying not to move, draw the lines you see starting with the shape of the head and then tracing the facial features.


If you are stuck somewhere waiting, for example, for a ride to arrive or a passenger to debark from a plane, make it more fun by playing a guessing game. Each person guesses how many cars will pass or passengers arrive before the wanted one happens. If you guess 10 and your little partner guesses 15 and you are both wrong. Guess again!


When the kids are bored but antsy with energy and quibbling with each other, here is a quickie that is guaranteed to direct their energies in a positive fun way while connecting their motor pathways

Take some shoes and lay them out in a straight line, about 6 inches apart (more or less depending on the child's age). Ask the children to start at one end and jump over each shoe. Then ask them to do the same thing in a variety of other ways such as jumping sideways, backwards, hopping on one foot or jumping over two at once. Let the children make up new ways. Maybe they want to jump and twirl in a circle. At the same time!

For a final triumph, pile all the shoes in a pile in a large cleared out space in the room. Tell the kids that this is not a pile of shoes (silly them to think that!) but is actually a huge mountain and they have to start from a distance away and run towards the mountain and then with one gigantic leap, make it over the top of the mountain to the other side.

It adds to the thrill if the others provide a drum roll--slapping their hands on the floor or on a table or on their knees as the next Leaper makes her run and then when that person is in the air, call out her name!

In essence, we parents are in the position to participate in our children's mental growth through the power of play. Let's enjoy!

Bio: Barbara is an pediatric occupational therapist and the author of Attention Games, 101 Fun Easy Games That Help Kids Learn to Focus (Wiley), Smart Play: 101 Fun Easy Games that Enhance Intelligence (Wiley), Self-Esteem Games, 300 Fun Activities that Make Children Feel Good about Themselves (Wiley), Spirit Games, 300 Fun Activities that Bring Children Comfort and Joy (Wiley), Extraordinary Play with Ordinary Things, Motor games with Everyday Stuff (Bright Baby Books) and soon to be released Playful Moments, 50 Spontaneous Games to Play with Your Young (Bright Baby Books) and Early Intervention Play: Joyful Games for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder

Her books have been published in 7 languages.

See www.gameslady.com