Boys & Girls At Play: Benefits of Game Play On the Brain

iPhones, iPads, tablets, Play Station, Xbox, and on and on. Electronics can be excellent for entertainment and education, but can you remember the last time you pulled out Chutes and Ladders and sat down on the floor, face to face with your young kids and just played? When was the last time you sat in a chair, paper and pencil in hand, lamplight glowing beside you and completed a crossword puzzle?

It isn’t just fun and games … but it is fun! Game play has benefits for all ages. Checkers, Chutes and Ladders, word searches, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, and so many more variants of play help develop and sustain cognitive development throughout the lifespan.

As a therapist who works with a wide age range of patients, games and puzzles are often utilized or discussed as part of therapy. Games promote socialization, cognitive development, memory, planning, and organizing, fine and gross motor skill development, limit setting, problem-solving, rule-following, hand-eye coordination, focus, and impulse control.

Anyone who has sat down with an excitable child and played a game of Kerplunk is watching impulse control in action. Sitting in front of the tower, with all the sticks in their many directions, and the marbles floating on top, to not grab a handful of sticks and listen to the magnificent noise of the marbles crashing to the bottom is irresistible. But, eventually, they learn the rules of the game, and they are reinforced to resist that urge, of course, always knowing it will happen eventually. It takes patience on the part of the adult, but it is teaching turn taking, resisting urges, following rules, etc. It is fun, and it is incredibly beneficial for your relationship with your child as well.

Game play and puzzles lead to improvements in executive functioning. This allows individuals to perform better at home, school, and work, do things independently, and develop and maintain relationships.

Research by Ramani and Siegler (2008) showed us that the more numerically-based board games, like Chutes and Ladders, that preschoolers played (and the more places they played them) the better children performed on mathematical skills, specifically: numerical identification, counting, number line estimates, and numerical magnitude comparisons (identifying which number is greater). And while video games may get a bad rep, their research also indicated that those who played video and card games also tended to do better on one (though not all four) of these mathematical skills.

The Bronx Aging Project showed us the benefits of crossword puzzles for those that are advancing in age. Researchers followed 488 “cognitively intact” participants over the course of time assessing cognitive functioning every 12-18 months. The results of this study indicated that while completing crossword puzzles won’t necessarily benefit those who are advancing into Alzheimer’s, doing so did stave off “accelerated memory decline by 2.54 years.” Two and one-half years of a fuller life experience is a gift not to be ignored.

Let us not forget the benefits of play on relationships for both children and adults. The socialization benefits of children at home and on the playground are widely discussed, but what about the grown-ups? A lot of money is spent paying to watch other people play games. We don’t just watch athletic games, but we watch people play poker, play chess, etc. Why spend time and money observing game play rather than participating? As we get older, life becomes focused on the necessities and responsibilities, and as we age even further we become more and more isolated. Game play not only continues to improve mental acuity but it enhances peer relationships and, as a result, boosts mood and physical energy. Boys and girls at play, men and women at play, these are the things that improve the mind, improve our mood, and connect us to one another.

Let the games begin!

Dr. Andrea Reed is a licensed master level psychologist at Prairie View’s west Wichita office.