Thursday, November 4, 2010

It's Child's Play

The group I work with is going on retreat this week and we have been making promises to the new members of the staff about how much fun we have playing Taboo™. This, our favorite bonding ritual, is followed closely by a game called Imaginiff™. With both of these games, what makes it fun is only partly the game itself. The primary ingredient of the fun is the particular group of players. A secondary ingredient is the memory of games past.

Playing is a vastly important component of life. I recently listened to an interview with Adele Diamond (one of the founders of the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience) and was struck by what she had to say about play and learning. While she was particularly interested in dramatic play, I couldn’t help but jump from there to my own experiences with playing games, period. In her research on the pre-frontal cortex (I’m giving you all this so you can read more yourself) she has found that play gives kids better “Executive Functions”. There are three executive functions: Inhibitory Control, Working Memory and Cognitive Flexibility. These are pretty much exactly what they sound like they might be and here’s how they “play out” in games.

Inhibitory Control is basically waiting your turn, or waiting for the right time. This is one of the first things that playing games teaches us. Can you wait until it’s your turn? Can you wait to show us what’s in your hand until it won’t hurt your strategy?

Working Memory is just what it sounds like too. What do you need to hold in your brain to play the game? If you are playing Taboo, you have to remember which words are forbidden until your team guesses the word or your turn is over. In Canasta you have to remember what your meld is for this turn, and so on.

Cognitive Flexibility is being able to create a new strategy when conditions change. If I’m playing Yahtzee™ and I hold two 2’s and roll three 4’s I am probably going to shift my plan to collect on the full house instead of going for the 2’s.

Did you have any idea that playing with your kids could build such important skills? I wouldn’t tell them, but I would definitely make a visit to the game cupboard over Thanksgiving weekend (or sooner) and give your kids the gift of Executive Function. Even if they come grudgingly they will mostly likely get involved to some degree – and if a board game won’t work, how about going bowling or playing with the Wii? The benefits will be the same - fun, learning and memories.

One last tale of Cognitive Flexibility: I recently heard a mother say “Marco” in a crowded room to which her child dutifully responded “Polo” and ended the mother’s search. Who knew it would work out of the water?

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