The 10 Best Games for Executive Functioning

July 3, 2024
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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It’s game time! Games are more than just fun — they're also a fantastic way to boost executive functioning skills. They work wonders for children's brains, especially brains with executive functioning disorders like ADHD. Executive functioning skills include planning, working memory, organization, time management, and self-control. Let’s cover what executive functioning is and explain the best games to help your kiddos sharpen their skills!

What Is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that help us manage our thoughts, actions, and emotions to get things done. Here’s a quick rundown of what these skills include:

  1. Planning: Setting goals and figuring out how to reach them.
  2. Working Memory: Holding and working with information in the mind.
  3. Organization: Keeping tasks and materials in order.
  4. Time Management: Using time wisely and prioritizing tasks.
  5. Self-Control: Regulating emotions and behavior, especially in tough situations.
  6. Flexibility: Adapting to new situations and switching between tasks.
  7. Problem-Solving: Finding solutions to tricky problems.

How Board Games Improve Executive Functioning

Games are more than just play; they’re brain-boosting exercises in disguise! Here’s how they help:

  • Challenge the Mind: Games make kids think critically and plan ahead.
  • Memory Workout: Remembering rules and strategies keeps those brain gears turning.
  • Social Skills: Playing with others builds communication and teamwork.
  • Focus and Patience: Games teach kids to concentrate and wait their turn.
  • Emotional Regulation: Kids learn to handle winning and losing gracefully.

10 Great Board Games That Boost Executive Functioning

1. Chess

Chess is the ultimate game of strategy and foresight. Each move requires players to consider numerous factors, including the positions of all pieces and potential future moves, which enhances planning and problem-solving skills. Working memory helps players recall their opponent’s strategies and adapt accordingly. Additionally, chess improves self-control as players must remain calm and think clearly under pressure.

When kids play chess, they practice setting long-term goals and develop the ability to think several moves ahead — an amazing skill to develop! They learn to foresee the consequences of their actions and adjust their plans based on the ever-changing board. This aspect of chess is particularly beneficial for improving cognitive flexibility and adaptability. The game also teaches patience and delayed gratification, as players must wait for the right moment to execute their strategies.

2. Checkers

Checkers is a simpler strategy game but still packs a punch in terms of cognitive benefits! Players must plan several moves ahead to trap their opponent’s pieces. This enhances planning and strategic thinking and improves flexibility as players adapt their strategies based on their opponent’s moves.

Checkers helps kids understand the importance of positioning and timing. By anticipating their opponent's moves and adjusting their strategies, they practice cognitive flexibility and adaptive thinking. Checkers also reinforces the concept of cause and effect, as each move can significantly impact the game's outcome. It is a great way to introduce younger children to strategic thinking in a more accessible format.

3. Backgammon

Backgammon combines the elements of luck and strategy. Players roll dice and must decide how to move their pieces to maximize their chances of winning. This game enhances planning and risk assessment. It also improves working memory as players keep track of the positions of their pieces and their opponent’s.

Backgammon requires players to balance immediate actions with long-term strategy. The randomness introduced by dice rolls teaches kids to adapt their plans on the fly, enhancing their flexibility and problem-solving skills. Children develop better decision-making skills by evaluating the risks and benefits of each potential move. Backgammon also involves recognizing patterns and predicting outcomes based on probabilities, strengthening mathematical thinking.

4. Mancala

Mancala is an ancient game that involves moving stones around a board to capture the most. It requires players to plan their moves carefully to maximize their captures. It enhances strategic planning and problem-solving skills. It also improves working memory as players must remember the number of stones in each pit and anticipate their opponent’s moves.

Mancala helps kids practice counting and mathematical reasoning. The game requires players to think several steps ahead, considering both their own moves and potential responses from their opponent. This forward-thinking approach reinforces planning and organizational skills. The game's repetitive nature also helps improve concentration and attention to detail, as players must keep track of multiple variables simultaneously.

5. Dominoes

Dominoes is a versatile game that can be played in many ways, but all versions require strategic thinking and pattern recognition. Players must plan their moves to match tiles and score points. This game enhances planning, organizational skills, and problem-solving as players decide the best way to place their tiles.

Dominoes teaches kids to recognize patterns and sequences, which are crucial for mathematical thinking and logical reasoning. Players practice strategic thinking and decision-making by planning their moves to maximize points. The game also encourages social interaction and communication as players negotiate and strategize with each other. Additionally, dominoes help improve fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination through the physical manipulation of the tiles.

6. Scrabble

Scrabble is a word game that combines vocabulary skills with strategic letter placement. Players must create words using their tiles and place them on the board to maximize points. This game enhances working memory as players recall word possibilities and their corresponding point values. It also promotes organizational skills by encouraging players to manage their tiles efficiently and place words in advantageous positions.

Scrabble encourages kids to expand their vocabulary and improve their spelling. The game also involves strategic thinking, as players must decide the best placement for their words to score the most points while blocking their opponents. Scrabble reinforces planning and resource management, as players need to balance short-term gains with long-term strategy. Additionally, the game fosters creativity and critical thinking as players come up with new words and find ways to fit them on the board.

7. Pandemic

Pandemic is a cooperative board game where players work together to stop the spread of diseases around the world. The game requires players to plan their moves carefully, prioritize tasks, and adapt to changing situations. It is excellent for developing teamwork, planning, and flexibility. Players must also use their working memory to keep track of the diseases’ spread and their remaining resources.

Pandemic teaches kids the value of collaboration and effective communication. Players develop teamwork and social skills by working together towards a common goal. The game also enhances strategic planning, as players must decide the best course of action to prevent outbreaks. Pandemic promotes cognitive flexibility, as players need to adapt their strategies based on the evolving game state. The cooperative nature of the game helps build empathy and encourages children to think about the greater good.

8. Guess Who?

Guess Who? is a fun deduction game in which players ask yes or no questions to identify their opponent’s character. As kids narrow down the possibilities, the game enhances critical thinking, memory, and communication skills. It also promotes flexibility as players adapt their questions based on the answers they receive.

Guess Who? helps kids practice logical reasoning and hypothesis testing. Players engage in critical thinking and deductive reasoning by formulating questions to eliminate possibilities. The game also improves memory and attention to detail, as players must remember the characteristics of each character. Guess Who? encourages social interaction and effective communication, as players ask and answer questions to gather information. It fosters patience and perseverance, as players must persistently work towards identifying the correct character.

9. Clue

Clue is a mystery-solving game that introduces kids to deductive reasoning and critical thinking. Players gather clues to determine who committed the crime, where, and with what. It’s excellent for boosting memory, problem-solving, and logical thinking. Players must plan their moves to collect clues efficiently and solve the mystery before their opponents.

Clue teaches kids the importance of gathering and analyzing information. Players practice logical reasoning and critical thinking by piecing together clues and forming hypotheses. The game also enhances working memory, as players must keep track of the clues they have gathered and remember the information revealed by other players. Clue promotes strategic planning, as players must decide the best way to navigate the board and collect clues. The game encourages patience and persistence, as solving the mystery often requires multiple rounds of deduction.

10. Uno

Uno is a fast-paced card game that requires quick thinking and strategy. Players must match cards by color or number and use special action cards to change the game’s direction. It’s great for improving working memory, flexibility, and strategic planning. Players must also practice self-control as they manage their emotions during the game.

Uno helps kids develop quick decision-making skills and cognitive flexibility. By adapting their strategies based on the cards they draw and the actions of other players, children practice thinking on their feet. The game also enhances working memory, as players must remember the current color or number and keep track of the special action cards in play. Uno encourages social interaction and communication as players negotiate and strategize with each other. The game fosters self-control and emotional regulation as players learn to handle the excitement of playing special cards and the frustration of being skipped or reversed.

Games as a Tool for Therapy

Playing games provides many opportunities to build skills beyond executive functioning, too! At Care Options for Kids, our therapists know that play can be an excellent landscape for growth. Adding board games to your therapy can help develop speech, language, and fine motor skills. It’ll be a huge win for kiddos who also struggle with executive functioning! So, grab a game, and get ready for brain-boosting fun!

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