Category Archives: Games and the Brain

Snack Attack Serves up Fun and Learning as a Speech/Language Tool!

I am thrilled to share another guest post by Kelly Rholes.  Kelly is a fabulous Speech Therapist who integrates game play into her practice to engage young players and make learning fun and meaningful!  In a previous post she described ways to use Zingo! to support her clients, and here she dives into Snack Attack!, sharing creative ways to use game play to target a range of different learning needs:

This game is FULL…let me say it again…FULL of options for targeting So many speech and language goals. I have created a few of these into a list that may help you when you want a new way to play this game, or when you need a new way to target a goal!

First of all, this game is just great fun, overall. I’ve played it with many of my kiddos and they all enjoy it and ask to play it again and again! They especially love spinning the tube that holds the tokens.
If you’re working on subjective pronouns (he/she):

*If your child needs to work on “he”, find a boy to play with you, and if your child needs to practice “she”, find a girl. (This obviously may be a little difficult depending on your situation. Play the game as you normally would except with this twist: Each child will play the other child’s card. The children will call out to you what the other person has. Have the child use the carrier phrase, “S/he has ____” to ensure the use of the pronoun. For example, Bobby needs to work on “she”. Bobby is playing with Sarah. The spinner will be spun, and Bobby will look at Sarah’s card. Sarah has popcorn, and popcorn is available on the game piece. Bobby will yell, “She has popcorn!” Sarah will then put popcorn on her card, and the game continues like this.

*You can play this way for pronouns I/you have. Also, consider targeting has/have if you child has trouble with this “be” verb and tweak the rules based on the child’s ability to follow new rules/skill level.

*Another quick way to target pronouns is to look at the front of the box the game comes in and discuss what each child has on his/her card.

If you’re working on imitation:

* Put some beans or rice in the tube, and close both ends. Shake the beans/rice and hand it to your child. You can even add words or sounds when you shake. For example, “shake, shake, shake!”

* Use the game piece and the tube, but leave the tube empty. Spin the tube and say, “weeeee!” Wait for the child to take a turn, or help the child imitate you by guiding his hand.

If you’re working on requesting:

* Place a small reinforcer in the tube. Close the tube. Then, show the child the tube. If the child is young, it will probably be hard for him to open the tube; therefore, he will need help opening it. If he’s reinforced enough, he will communicate in some way to let you know he wants it. (Keep in mind this may be crying!) Provide him with a model so that he can imitate you to request at his skill level.

If you’re working on memory:

* Lay target number of tokens out in front of the child. Name them or have the child name them. The child then closes his eyes. Take one of the tokens away. The child will open his eyes and guess which one is missing.

If you’re working on phonological awareness:

* Lay target number of tokens in front of the child. Make sure you have different tokens. Tell the child to give you the one that starts with __. Letters you will be able to target: a, c, g, i, m, p, s. There are 12 different food items. Some start with the same letter. You could also have the child give you the foods that start with the same letter. Another game you could play is to have the child make up a silly (nonsense) word that rhymes with whichever food item you hand him or he draws from the pile.

If you’re working on articulation:

These are for specific sounds:

/g/: I got _______! (The child will use this simple sentence when he finds a food on the game board that matches on his plate.)
/h/: I have ______! (The child will use this simple sentence when he finds a food on the game board that matches on his plate.)
/s/: I see ______! (The child will use this to name the food items once the tube has been spun around the entire game board.)
/f/: I found _______! (The child will use this simple sentence when he finds a food on the game board that matches on his plate.)
/l/: I like/don’t like to eat _____! (The child will use this to talk about the foods on the game board or on his plate.)

If you need this as a reinforcer:

Obvious? The game itself is a reinforcer, but a way you can use this and still target your goals (when targeting them other ways) is to have the child perform the target activity, then take a turn with the game. A turn can mean spinning the tube once and playing until he can no longer play.

If you’re working on ANYTHING:
(answering questions, following directions, speech sounds, etc, etc, etc!)

Use this template if you want or make your own: Colored circles for Snack Attack

Cut out the circles and tape them down over the small circles inside the holes where the food lands once the tube has passed over it. Confusing? Here’s a picture. P.S. To make your own circles, use whatever program you want but make sure the circles measure 7/8 of an inch.

You could:

*(Best for 2 players, not including you) Make one colored circle and put a thin thin layer of sticky tack on the back of it. Place it randomly on one of the circles of the game board. Have the children close their eyes. Spin the tube so that the tokens cover up the circles. The children play as they normally would except if someone grabs a food item with a red circle underneath, he must put that token back into the tube. Once that round is finished and the children can no longer play, pick up the tokens that could not be played, move the red circle to another spot, and spin the tube to cover the holes again.

* Put a different colored circle in each of the holes. Have the child spin the empty tube and see where it lands. The color that he lands on is the coordinating color card (that you already made) in which he has to do. These pre-made cards will correspond with your target goals. So, if you have a following directions goal, he will have to perform the activity that the card states.

Here is an example of pre-made cards with a following directions goal:  Following Directions

If you need to work on body parts or clothing, make your cards correspond to pointing to body parts.
If you’re working on specific question types (i.e. “who”), make your cards fit that goal (i.e. “Who delivers mail?”, “Who do you see when you’re sick?”, “Who takes care of sick animals?”, “Who cuts your hair?”)

* Put different colored circles in each of the holes. Play the game as you normally would. Each time a token is picked up, the child must remember the color underneath it. When one round is finished, the child has to repeat the colors in the order he picked up the tokens.

You are not limited to just colors. You can put numbers on your circles (provided as a template) and make up your own games. You would write target letters and work on speech sounds that the empty tube lands on after it has been spun. If working on basic reading and/or phonological awareness, have the child spin the empty tube and read the word it lands on and/or think of another word that starts with that letter and/or rhymes with the word.

If you’re working on patterns:

There are 12 different food items and 11 of each one. Use only the tokens for this. Lay them out to make a pattern (i.e. peanut, peanut, cheese…) Have the child finish your pattern or make his own. You could also make a pattern, then remove one of the tokens. The child must figure out which part of the pattern is missing and replace the token with the correct food item.

If you want the child to answer questions about the foods:

Play the game as you normally would. When one round is finished, look at the child’s plate and ask him a question about one of the foods. Here is an example sheet of questions you can use: Asking Questions

That is all!

The teachers-turned-inventors behind ThinkFun’s newest game!

When describing my work at ThinkFun, I’m often asked where the ideas for our great games originate.

ThinkFun is incredibly fortunate to have expert puzzler Tanya Thompson as the Head of Inventor Relations!  Tanya travels the world meeting with inventors, gathering prototypes, and determining which games are the best fits for the ThinkFun family.

Through our connections with these wonderful inventors, ThinkFun is able to consistently serve up a rich variety of new game challenges each year, and our latest release is one with a great story I’m excited to share! ThinkFun’s Swish is a multi-player card game that challenges players to mentally flip and rotate transparent card images to line up like colored balls and hoops – a serious spatial workout! Here’s a quick video to show you how its played:


As a former teacher, I’m particularly thrilled we produced this game because the inventors, Zvi Shalem and Gali Shimoni, are teachers themselves!  Both from Israel, Gali has taught math for 20 years, while Zvi has taught math and physics for the past 10!  Introduced to ThinkFun via a mutual friend and math specialist, these math educators develop materials and thinking games and travel the world speaking at math education conferences.

To further support the educational backing behind this great brain challenge, Swish was recently shared with Professor Nurit Yirmiya, Ph.D. in Developmental and Clinical Psychology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem!  Here’s what she had to say:

This game is appropriate for the young and old.  But what will it develop?  What will you achieve?

Sequential thinking – thinking what comes before and what comes after, because you need to plan ahead and hold a sequence of moves in your mind.  Sequential thinking is an important component of intelligence.

Working memory – an important component of learning and memory – actively manipulate and monitor information – once you have the plan – you have to remember it.

Perceptual perspective taking – because you develop expertise in manipulating the cards in your mind visualizing how they could fit if turned over and/or rotated.

Selective attention to spatial relationships and matching of shapes and colors – strengthening the ability to resist the temptation of acting before thinking

Creativity – there are just so many different ways to create the triads – let your imagination free to examine the various possibilities.

Have you played Swish or other great card games with your kids or students?  Which are your favorites – and what brain benefits do you observe during play?!

ThinkFun Games Strengthen Mental Muscles at Herndon Senior Center!

Emilio Esteban, Troop 913
Herndon, Virginia

There are seven ranks in scouting and the Eagle Scout rank is the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America. A scout needs to fulfill over 350 requirements in his path to Eagle. Probably the most noteworthy of these is where the prospective Eagle needs to “plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community.”
I have been a Life scout, one rank below Eagle, since February 2006.  My fascination with puzzles and brainteasers began I was a young child.  In fact, one of my first puzzles was a Binary Arts (now ThinkFun) product called Port to Port.  In spring 2008, I began actively searching for an Eagle Scout project. After a few discussions, one idea came up: what about offering mind challenging games to senior citizens?

A few calls later, I was able to contact and meet with Mrs. Ruth Junkin, the director of the Herndon Senior Center. Mrs. Junkin, herself the mother of an Eagle Scout, was very supportive of the idea. The Herndon Senior Center sponsors an activity called Mental Muscle, led by Mrs. Donna Sugermeyer. The program was focused on word puzzles, and I thought that giving the seniors other games could improve the program.

After obtaining project approvals from my troop, I talked with Mr. Bill Ritchie and Ms. Andrea Barthello, the founders of ThinkFun, who were equally enthusiastic about the idea. They donated some games for research, which I brought to the senior center with a few other scouts to three sessions of Mental Muscle. After figuring out the games the seniors liked, I organized a fundraising campaign from Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church so that we could purchase more games for the project. Considering the economic downturn that the country was experiencing, the results were rather surprising: over $2,000 was collected. In fact, I was still getting donations two months after the weekend of fundraising.
The funds, coupled with ThinkFun’s additional donation of games, allowed me to purchase two storage carts and games for the center.  I was also able to create two other portable units which could be taken to other Mental Muscle programs around Fairfax County.
I brought 14 scouts with me to help present the games on the December 30, 2008 session of Mental Muscle. The seniors were extremely excited, and about 70 seniors attended the event — thrice as many seniors as are normally present. The seniors enjoyed the games and the refreshments provided.  According Mrs. Junkin, the games are now popular even among seniors outside of the Mental Muscle program!

Presenting a donation check to Ruth Junkin and the Mental Muscle Program of Herndon Senior Center, December 30, 2008

So, my Eagle Scout project is done. It’s nice to know that I’ve finally finished, and even nicer to know that I managed to make a lot of people happy while on the way.  Finally, one of the best lessons I have learned through this experience is that it takes a lot of help from individuals and organizations in order to carry out a successful project.  I could not have done this project without the support of ThinkFun’s founders, and the help of Mrs. Junkin and Mrs. Sugermeyer, my parents, siblings, and fellow scouts.

Stop Summer Brain Drain!

School is out, and summer fun is on everyone’s brain!

While a vacation from projects and homework is welcome break, the lazy days of summer can do a lot of damage.  Did you know kids lose an average of 2 months of math skills over the summer!?  Low income students are at far greater risk, falling behind an average 2-3 months in reading skills.

But never fear – ThinkFun is here!

No child looks forward to a summer filled with workbooks and flashcards, so what better way to keep brains engaged than through play!?

Mind challenging puzzles are the perfect way to fight Summer Brain Drain, and through July 31st ThinkFun is offering 25% on all Brainteasers!

These Brainteasers are designed for travel and will keep parents and kids sharp through summer and beyond.  My favorite thing about these puzzles is that they are far from child’s play – Brainteasers are perfect for all ages!  Want proof?  Here I am high-fiving my 87 year old Grandma after we solved Izzi – one of my favorite Brainteasers!

ThinkFun Izzi Puzzle Brainteaser Game


Nina’s Rush Hour Victory!

This video made my day!  A father teaching in Japan recently shared this fantastic video of his 5 year old daughter Nina working diligently through tough Rush Hour challenges.  Her flushed cheeks and “tired brain” at the end are signs of a real mind workout!

I sent Nina’s dad a message congratulating Nina on her impressive problem solving and was thrilled to hear back right away…

“Wow! What an honor to get a message from you! I discovered Rush Hour 10 years ago, in the U.S. I enjoyed it so much, I bought one to take back to Japan. My Japanese wife loves it, too. After doing all the cards, we put it away and forgot about it until Nina came along. I thought five might be too young, but Nina surprised us!”

Bravo Nina!

It is such a thrill making connections with thinkers all over the world… do you have great photos or video of your favorite game(s) in action?  Please share!

Need a Brain Snack? Try the Solitaire Chess App!

My name is Charlotte, and I am a Solitaire Chess addict.

I never touched a chess board growing up, and as an adult I felt I’d ever have a shot at learning the game. When ThinkFun first developed the Solitaire Chess game last year, I nervously waited to be found out as a non-chess player and was sure the game wouldn’t be for me.  How wrong I was.

Solitaire Chess by ThinkFun

Solitaire Chess by ThinkFun

The beauty of Solitaire Chess is that it teaches even the most chess-phobic newbie the basic movement rules of classic chess, easing you into game play with early challenges that reinforce chess rules.  Since it’s a single-player challenge in which you eliminate pieces with capture moves, you play at your own pace and learn as you go… no pressure.

Solitaire Chess was a nice addition to my life, and I was happy to pick up a challenge or two and play during downtime… then everything changed.  In January, we released the Solitaire Chess app featuring 400 BRAND NEW challenges, and I was hooked.

Solitaire Chess ipad

In March I spent an entire red eye flight home Palm Springs working my way through the 100 “mediums.”  I deplaned victorious (albeit EXTREMELY red-eyed!), and while I’ve not spent another multi-hour stretch of time playing, almost daily I find myself opening the app for a quick brain snack, completing a challenge or 2 at a time.  A quick puzzle is a great way to polish up by brain while standing in line, on the subway, or just giving my eyeballs a break from the computer.  I feel sharper, and the sweet victory music is a nice confidence boost :)

Just last week, ThinkFun released Solitaire Chess for Android – I’m thrilled that having this game on both iOS and Droid opens up the play experience for loads more eager players!

Interestingly, in our outreach to the chess community, we’ve connected with the folks at the US Chess Federation who found the more advanced puzzles incredibly challenging!  Feeling that I could train myself to take on puzzles that top-level chess masters are struggling with is pretty empowering… although I may need another cross-county flight to bust through the Expert level!

The Today Show Celebrates Smart Toys for Smarter Girls and Boys!

What a thrill to wake up this morning and see Stephanie Oppenheim on the Today Show in a segment featuring games that support learning through play! Even better? She shared two ThinkFun games that are very close to my heart – Zingo 1-2-3 and Rush Hour – both the physical game and the app!

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I worked closely with our Product Development team to fine tune the design and game play for Zingo! 1-2-3, so it was a very proud moment to see this game celebrated for the fun way it builds number sense skills and reinforces math facts!

Love to see healthy brain play being celebrated!

The Case for Play

Came across a fantastic article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I just had to share.  This piece details the challenges that educators, researchers, and parents face today as free play is squeezed out of kids’ academic lives, marginalized by test-driven curricula, and pushed aside in favor of over-scheduled “downtime” by well-meaning adults seeking to give their kids a leg up.  The power of play cannot be overstated, and I particularly appreciated one of the comments in response:

BStevens: “This is kind of like discovering that people who eat live longer than people who don’t eat. I have a PhD, but I would say that 90% of the most useful things I know I learned either from my parents at home, my siblings, or from “free play” both as a child and as a grown-up.”

February 20, 2011

The Case for Play: How a handful of researchers are trying to save childhood.

By Tom Bartlett

Lucas Sherman and Aniyah McKenzie are building a house in Central Park. It is small, even by Manhattan standards, and the amenities leave something to be desired. But Lucas, who is 6, and Aniyah, who is 7, seem pleased with their handiwork. The house has a skylight (a hole torn in cardboard) and a flat-screen television (a black square of fabric). Lucas is too busy to answer a stranger’s annoying questions, but Aniyah, who is holding a feather duster, explains that she must clean the walls because they are very dirty.

Lucas’s father, Dan, observes the project from a nearby bench. “It’s amazing what you can do with boxes and junk,” he says.

The Case for Play 1

Pretend play—being a chef "cooking" with Play-Doh, for example—may be essential to children's development, say some researchers.

Lucas Sherman and Aniyah McKenzie are building a house in Central Park. It is small, even by Manhattan standards, and the amenities leave something to be desired. But Lucas, who is 6, and Aniyah, who is 7, seem pleased with their handiwork. The house has a skylight (a hole torn in cardboard) and a flat-screen television (a black square of fabric). Lucas is too busy to answer a stranger’s annoying questions, but Aniyah, who is holding a feather duster, explains that she must clean the walls because they are very dirty.

Lucas’s father, Dan, observes the project from a nearby bench. “It’s amazing what you can do with boxes and junk,” he says.

That could almost be the slogan of the New York Coalition for Play, which provided the boxes and junk. The nonprofit association ran one of the two dozen booths at the Ultimate Block Party, an event last fall that brought together companies like Disney, Crayola, and Lego, along with researchers from Columbia and MIT, and attracted thousands of parents and children. The goal was to “celebrate the science of play” and to push back against the notion that education happens only when students are seated at their desks, staring at chalkboards, and scribbling furiously in their notebooks.

The rally of sorts was the brainchild of two top play researchers, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (Rodale, 2003) and editors, along with Dorothy Singer, of Play=Learning (Oxford University Press, 2006). They want to take what they’ve learned in the lab and proclaim it in the park, or wherever else people will listen. The message is this: The emphasis on standardized testing, on attempting to constantly monitor, measure, and quantify what students learn, has forced teachers to spend more of the school day engaged in so-called direct instruction and has substantially reduced or eliminated opportunities that children have for exploring, interacting, and learning on their own. Recess has, in many districts, vanished from the schedule entirely. After school, parents shuttle their kids from activity to activity, depriving them of unstructured time alone or with friends.

That matters, according to researchers, not just because play reduces stress and makes children more socially competent—which evidence suggests that it does. It matters also because play supposedly improves working memory and self-regulation; in other words, it makes kids sharper and better-behaved. So, ironically, by shortchanging them on play in favor of academics, we may actually be inhibiting their development. Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, considers the move away from play to be a crisis, even comparing it to global warming, in the sense that it may take years for the consequences to be felt. When it comes to the value of play, she declares: “The science is clear.”

But how clear is it? Even researchers who’ve devoted much of their careers to studying play question the more inflated claims of its importance. Within the world of those who take play seriously, there are multiple camps, each with its own dearly held tenets. There are the Free Players, who argue that play is a human right and that adults should more or less leave kids alone. There are the Play Skeptics, who see play as useful for blowing off steam but are dubious about its cognitive upside. And there are Play Moderates, who advocate a mix of free play, adult-guided play, and traditional classroom instruction. No matter whom you’re talking with, though, it seems every discussion about play eventually comes around to a prolific Russian psychologist who died more than 75 years ago.

Before tuberculosis claimed him, at just 37, Lev Vygotsky managed to produce a stack of volumes on topics as diverse as the psychology of art, the relationship between thought and language, the problem of consciousness, the behavior of primitive man, scientific language, and child development. While the amount of work he cranked out is notable in itself, what’s more impressive is how influential that work has become, even though much of it remained unpublished and untranslated for decades following his death.

For play researchers, no one looms larger than Vygotsky, whose name, along with that of his longer-lived and better-known contemporary, Jean Piaget, pops up on seemingly every other page of the literature. Vygotsky viewed play, particularly pretend play, as a critical part of childhood, allowing a child, as he said in one oft-repeated quote, to stand “a head taller than himself.” His biggest theoretical contribution may have been the Zone of Proximal Development: the idea that children are capable of a range of achievement during each stage of their lives. In the right environment, and with the right guidance (which was later dubbed “scaffolding”), children can perform at the top of that range.

For instance, Vygotsky explained, when a child can pretend that a broomstick is a horse, he or she is able to separate the object from the symbol. A broom is not a horse, but it’s possible to call a broom a horse, and even to pretend to ride it. That ability to think abstractly is a huge mental leap forward, and play can make it happen.

Among the many who have been influenced by Vygotsky is Deborah J. Leong, the author, along with Elena Bodrova, of Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education, an attempt to turn his theories into practical classroom techniques. Leong, a professor emerita of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, points out that when young children are pretending, they often use bigger words than they normally would and fully inhabit their roles, like mini Method actors. If they’re playing doctor, for instance, they might say “injection” or “thermometer.” Recently she watched a group of preschoolers pretending to work at a well-known chain hardware store. “Welcome to Home Depot,” a 4-year-old said. “You can do it, we can help.” Meanwhile another group of children, who were pretending to be airport screeners, informed a would-be passenger that a bottle she was carrying was larger than the permitted three ounces.

Pretend play isn’t just about vocabulary. A 2007 study published in Science looked at how 4- and 5-year-olds who were enrolled in a school that used the play-based, Vygotsky-inspired Tools of the Mind curriculum measured up to children in a more typical preschool. The students in the play-based school scored better on cognitive flexibility, self-control, and working memory—attributes of “executive function,” which has been consistently linked to academic achievement. The results were so convincing that the experiment was halted earlier than planned so that children in the typical preschool could be switched to the Tools of the Mind curriculum. The authors conclude: “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential.”

With evidence like that, you might think that the kind of guided pretend play that Vygotsky favored would be universally embraced. In fact, according to Leong, it’s fast disappearing, as the idea of learning becomes synonymous with memorization and standardized tests. Play is steadily losing out to what play proponents refer to as the “drill and kill” method. “We drill more because they can’t pay attention, but they can’t pay attention because they don’t have these underlying play skills, so we drill more,” Leong says. “It’s pathetic.”

Not to mention misguided, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Whether children play enough isn’t an obscure debate among developmental psychologists. If it’s true that children who spend too little time playing struggle with executive function, then we may be raising a generation of kids with less self-control, shorter attention spans, and poorer memory skills. If that really is the case, Hirsh-Pasek’s talk about a crisis isn’t so far-fetched.

She sees the Ultimate Block Party as the first step in a national effort to get people to stop dismissing play and start questioning the way we assume children learn. She wants to speak directly to parents, most of whom aren’t poring over every issue of Child Development for the latest research on play. The goal, in a sound bite, is to take that research “into the streets, subways, and supermarkets.”

It’s not every day that an academic stages a spectacle in Central Park to bring attention to what is, honestly, a fairly small field of research. To pull it off, Hirsh-Pasek hired a public-relations agency and drummed up big-name corporate sponsors. There was a Sesame Street sing-a-long, what was billed as “New York’s Largest Simon Says,” and a Radio Disney Dance Party. A small company called Ridemakerz hawked its build-your-own remote-control cars. Not to mention the guy selling a nifty iPhone app that lets you play a technologically enhanced game of hide-and-seek using the smartphone’s GPS capability.

There were also decidedly less-profit-driven booths, like the one run by the New York Coalition for Play. Rather than whiz-bang gadgets, they offered cardboard boxes and tubes, lots of fabric, ribbon, empty wine crates, and assorted items that would otherwise be found in a recycling bin. One of those overseeing the booth was Edward Miller, a senior researcher at the nonprofit group Alliance for Childhood, part of whose mission is to promote creative play. When asked what he thought of the Ridemakerz booth just a few yards away, he couldn’t help rolling his eyes. “We’re also concerned about the overcommercialization of play,” he said. “The right answer is less programming and more opportunities for kids to make up things on their own.”

Hirsh-Pasek is well aware that play purists look askance at including corporations in the pro-play campaign. Those who take a hard line on free play—that is, giving children basic materials like boxes and fabric and then leaving them alone—have zero use for Nickelodeon kid bands and pricey remote-control cars, which they see as just more ways for adults to get in the way. What she has in mind is a big tent, one that doesn’t exclude fancy toys or snappy musical productions. Nor does she have much patience for advocates who claim that the only valuable play is the kind that doesn’t involve anyone over 18. She wants kids to play on their own, sure, but she also wants them to engage in more guided play, where an adult or older child can take part.

There’s research to back her up. A study she recently submitted for publication gave blocks to children divided into three groups. In one group, the blocks had already been assembled into a heliport. A second group was given blocks, and adults helped the children follow directions to build a heliport. A third group was given blocks and told to do whatever it wanted. The researchers then listened to the language children were using as they played. Those who were building a heliport with an adult used the most imaginative and spatial language (like “below,” “on top,” “next to”); the kids who were playing with the preassembled heliport used the least.

While she’s no purist, Hirsh-Pasek is suspicious of some of the toys that purport to be educational. The title of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (subtitled How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less) is an apparent slap at the Disney-owned Baby Einstein company. She also cites research that shows that electronic books for kids, the kind that talk and make noises, actually distract young readers: Kids who read them remember less of the narrative than kids who read the story on old-fashioned paper. What’s more, Hirsh-Pasek says, she turned down millions of dollars from a corporate sponsor (which she declines to identify) that requested the right to name the Ultimate Block Party.

In many ways, she is placing herself in the middle. She’s not trying to run toy companies out of business, but she is willing to criticize products that do more harm than good. She’s not attempting to tear down traditional classroom education, but she is pushing hard for more play in schools obsessed with testing. To that end, she’s working to make the research on play palatable for teachers and parents.

How good that research is, though, is a matter of debate. Peter K. Smith began studying play in the mid-1970s. At the time, he was a believer in the “play ethos,” which he defines in his recent book, Children and Play, as the “very strong and unquestioned view of the importance of play.” In that book, he quotes numerous researchers waxing enthusiastic about play’s importance, asserting that it is “vital” and “the work of childhood” and “the supreme psychological need.”

Later, Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of London, became a skeptic. “I looked at the textbooks of play” from Piaget forward, he says. “They said play is essential for development, that it enhanced this and this, and that and that, but they don’t cite any evidence.” So he decided to take a closer look. In the late 1980s, he picked a couple of studies that claimed to demonstrate the benefits of play. In one study, researchers had found that playing with small objects helped young children learn how to solve problems. Another showed that play made kids more creative. Smith replicated both using a double-blind procedure to eliminate any potential research bias.

His findings showed no difference in creativity or problem-solving ability between the kids who played and those who didn’t. It was a setback for play advocates and made researchers wonder whether the field was based on science or sentimental hype.

More than two decades after Smith’s debunking, researchers like Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, are still raising some of the same questions. “I think if you look hard at all the studies people cite as showing that play helps development, they are either correlation studies”—in other words, they don’t prove that play actually causes cognitive gains—”or they have problems,” she says.

Not that Lillard, or Smith, for that matter, is antiplay. Lillard is the author of the best-selling book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius and has written about the possible links between pretend play and social cognition. She does, however, believe that the field is in need of newer and better research. “My own view is that I would like for us to have firmer footing to stand on,” she says.

But while scientific support for play can be overstated, sometimes the criticism of play can be unfounded. Last September, Time magazine published an article with the headline “Free Play Won’t Make Your Child Smarter.” The article was prompted by a study that looked at how 2,751 preschoolers fared in programs with a variety of approaches, including free play and traditional group instruction. That study concluded that “more quality instructional time” and “less free play time” would better prepare kids for school.

But the study’s case against play in school isn’t entirely persuasive. It’s true that the kids who spent the largest chunk of their school day (41 percent) engaged in free play were behind their counterparts on skills like naming letters, naming numbers, and writing their names. But those who spent 29 percent of their time in teacher-guided play actually performed at the same level as the kids who played much less (only 13 to 15 percent of the time) when it came to naming numbers, highest number counted, language and literacy, word and letter identification, and writing their names legibly. In short, they played twice as much but learned the same amount. One of the authors of the report, Nina Chien, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego, acknowledges in an e-mail that this was proof “that kids can play a lot but still make good gains.”

More interesting is what the researchers didn’t test. Did the children who played more demonstrate higher levels of self-control and better working memory, as other research suggests they would? If so, did they outperform the kids—preschoolers, remember—who spent 15 percent or less of their time playing? Is being smart a race to see who can memorize the most, or is it about developing capacities to deal with a complex world?

While much of the research on play focuses on young children, the implications go well beyond third grade. In junior high, play is more likely to be called “discovery learning.” When professors try to get college students to look up from their iPhones, it’s probably referred to as “active engagement.” But the principles are the same. Stuart Brown, one of the authors of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, has reviewed thousands of life histories and concluded that play is essential for children and adults. He’s intent on spreading that gospel through his organization, the National Institute for Play, whose mission is to make human play a “credentialed discipline in the scientific community.”

And it’s not just people. That nonhuman primates engage in sophisticated play has been thoroughly established, and anyone who has dangled a string in front of a cat has conducted animal research. In his book The Genesis of Animal Play, Gordon Burghardt, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, reports playful behavior in lizards, turtles, and birds. Even fish have been known to amuse themselves.

For Hirsh-Pasek, the universality of play is part of the evidence of its value. Why would we do it if it didn’t confer an evolutionary advantage? She concedes that some of the play research is more suggestive than slam-dunk, and that cleaner, stronger studies would be welcome. But she also argues that we already know enough to conclude that play matters, and that failing to preserve it in the lives of children could be a disaster.

She’s doing her part to stave that off. Hirsh-Pasek says 40 cities have expressed interest in holding their own Ultimate Block Parties. She and her colleagues will soon unveil a Web site to promote play research, and more books are on the way. Their goal, she says, is to restore play to its rightful, respected place in the lives of children. “Even if we don’t understand it perfectly, it’s silly to take play away from society,” she says. “It’s like taking love away. It’s crazy.”


Resource: Here is a great link for parents and professionals interested in studying the psychological effects of children learning in unconventional environments.

Solitaire Chess Teaches Students to Look Before They Leap!

Teaching eager young learners to slooooow down and think carefully before racing to a conclusion is a tricky task!  Helping students apply the brakes and think their way through a problem is a whole lot easier when you can present a challenge that naturally forces them to do so…much more effective than nagging reminders to “stop and think!”

ThinkFun’s new game Solitaire Chess does just this!  A single player logic puzzle based on the rules of chess, Solitaire Chess challenges players to use traditional chess moves to eliminate all but one piece in a given challenge.  The physical game features 60 challenges, and a newly released app has a whopping 400!  Try it out and you’ll see how easy it is to get hooked!

The notion that playing chess is good for you, building thinking skills through play, is certainly nothing new.  For years studies have explored how this highly strategic game improves players brain function, and schools all over the world integrate chess programs into their instruction to help build students’ thinking in new ways.  The beauty of Solitaire Chess is that it makes chess accessible to players who have never been introduced to the game.  The quick to learn game play lets players dive in at an appropriate level and build expertise and confidence as they go!

The idea that teachers can use of this new game in the classroom thrills me (are you surprised?!), which is why I was so excited to read a recent blog post by gifted specialist Tamara Fisher on the reaction her students had to this new game.  Tamara shares her experience using Solitaire Chess with her gifted students, and she provides excellent tips to help others use this game as a learning tool!  Here is an excerpt from her post, and the full story can be found here.

“What I’m finding is that Solitaire Chess is proving to be an excellent way to help these bright kids learn how to think something through before diving in. My gifted students are often so capable at challenges that they can typically dive in and figure it out as they go. But the nature of Solitaire Chess requires some pondering first in order to achieve a successful outcome. I don’t know that there’s a more fun way to help our brightest students learn to look before they leap!”

Tamara also shares some fabulous comments and insights from her students…  I love the way this game enables students to be reflective on their thinking process and appreciate the benefit that extra “think time” allows!  Here are some of my favorites:

“It hurts and works your brain, but it’s very fun and challenging. I liked that some puzzles took longer than other to solve. I love it!”

“A very fun and interesting game. It really makes you think about the outcome and figure it out in your head before you go ‘hands-on.'”

“This game is nothing like any other game I’ve ever played. It’s like swimming in the ocean; if you jump right in you’ll get eaten by a shark, but if you wait and think about how to avoid the shark you’re alive!” (love this!)

“I LOVE this game. It’s chess upgraded! It makes me look beyond what’s in front of me! This game takes patience and skill.”

I love the way this game enables students to be reflective on their thinking process and appreciate the benefit that extra “think time” allows!

Have you used Solitaire Chess or another great thinking game in the classroom?  How have you used games to encourage your students to think in new ways and practice new skills?  Please share your experience below!

Want more?  ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie shares more on how Solitaire Chess challenges build problem solving skills in his article “Building Thinking Skills Through Chess” featured on the United States Chess Federation’s website!

7 Questions to Stretch Your Child’s Thinking During Play

The following guest post is by Maria Rainier, a stay at home mom, freelance writer, and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education and performs research surrounding online degrees.

It’s no new fact that kids learn when at play, and as parents and teachers, we know that it’s best to tell less and ask more.  When at play with toys and make-believe, children engage in self-regulation—inner speech that influences self-discipline and learning in later years according to executive function researcher Laura Berk in NPR article “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills.” By engaging children with questions in their world of learning and make-believe, adults can in fact enhance and help develop a child’s thinking skills.

What questions, then, to ask?  Keep the following key points in mind the next time you’re in the sandbox with your kid, courtesy of Clayton Early Learning.

1. Ask questions about concepts.

If your kid is playing with shapes, ask, “Why doesn’t this shape (triangle) fit in this slot (circle)?”  If you’re at the park, take animals into consideration.  Ask, “Why isn’t this animal (bird) the same as that animal (dog)?”

2. Ask questions to get kids analyzing and reasoning.

The next time you help your child put on a rain jacket, ask, “Why do we need to wear a rain jacket today when we didn’t wear one yesterday?”

3. Ask questions to link thoughts across activities.

When learning about fruits or vegetables, take children into the kitchen and have them observe (or help, if they’re capable) the process of cooking a snack or dinner.  Ask, “What can we use this tomato for?”

4. Ask questions to help kids apply concepts to real life.

Try drawing different types of graphs with your child about how many days in the last week it rained, how many dogs they saw at the park over the week, how many red, white, black, blue, and green cars they saw on the way home from the grocery store, etc.

5. Ask questions to inspire creativity.

Encourage brainstorming by asking questions like, “How many ways can we get to the park?”

6. Ask questions to spark observation skills and judgment.

If your child already knows the story of the three pigs (or while reading the story to your child), ask, “Why would you want to live in a straw house?  How about a brick house?  Which one might protect the three little piggies from the big, bad wolf better?”

7. Ask questions to inspire self-reflection.

Get kid to think about the very process of thinking.  This encourages critical thinking skills and even gives them very necessary ego boosts.  The next time your kid shows evidence of analysis or creativity, ask, “How did you know that?”