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Brain Training Games: Help improve your child's cognitive skills

Jane Davis

by Jane Davis, PT, MSHP, Cognitive Specialist, Brain Potential Institute

As a little girl with cerebral palsy, I struggled to do many things. When I look back on it, I can see that my mother was a pretty good brain trainer. For example, I had very poor hand coordination, so I had difficulty cutting with scissors accurately. My mother, however, was not fazed by my decapitated paper dolls; she devised lots of ways to help train my brain to improve my fine motor skills.

She first bought me paper dolls that were perforated so that  I could punch them out with my hands. Next, she set to work improving my scissor skills by teaching me to cut out paper snowflakes. (To this day, if I am bored or stressed, I will carefully fold a sheet of paper, and carefully, slowly cut out simple rectangles, triangles, and half moons, taking care to guard the corner of the folded paper with my thumb so that as the snow flake is unfolded, the design is revealed.)

Next, I was ready to cut curved lines with safety scissors, and finally regular scissors. Mom spent time with me every day learning to peel and cut vegetables in the kitchen. We started off with a peeler to remove the skin from potatoes and cucumbers, and we progressed to a paring knife. She never said a word in the first few months when half of the cucumber was lost in my clumsy cutting efforts. She never complained when it looked like the tossed salad had been butchered. Now I am a very accomplished home cook,and the salads at the Davis home don't look half bad.  

At Brain Potential Institute, we approach brain training--improving your child's ability to think--with exactly the same principles that my mother employed to teach me how to improve my fine motor skills.

First, you target the thinking skill that needs to be improved.

Some good targets are attention, memory, brain speed, or verbal fluency.


To improve memory, you first have to decide whether in this exercise you want to exercise visual memory (remembering what you see) or auditory memory (remembering what you hear and read).

Next you have to choose short-term or long-term memory. Short-term memory lasts only for 30 seconds, but it is impossible to create a long-term memory without first making a short-term memory.

Here is a great example of an auditory short-term memory exercise: How many words in a list can your child, teen, or spouse remember without making a mistake?

First write down the word lists. At first, you say only one word and they repeat only one word, such as map.

Now you progress to two words to remember such as street, door. Now your student repeats street, door.  

Now try a list of three words such as person, silver, slip

Keep adding additional words until the student begins to make mistakes. You are taking a measure of their single isolated word memory capacity. If they give you a response in 30 seconds or less, this is one way to measure auditory short-term memory. If they can remember the list half an hour later, then you have created a long-term memory.

Improving Your Child's Memory

If your child or teen can make a crazy picture in their head of what they are trying to remember, then it is more likely that a long term memory can be formed. I ask my students to have their crazy pictures in their heads interact with each other in order to help remember the sequence or order of the words.  

When measuring short-term or 30-second memory, 4-year-olds can typically remember a list of three short words. A 5-and-a-half-year-old might be able to repeat four simple short words such as mom, dad, dog, cat.  A 6-and-a-half-year-old should be able to recite four words. Some 12-year-olds can remember five words in a list. But many adults struggle with accuracy for lists of five, six, or seven items.

Normal adult auditory memory capacity is thought to be seven chunks of information, and a word is considered to be one chunk. That is why our original phone numbers were 7 digits long. We tended to make lots of memory mistakes when we added area codes, and phone numbers expanded to 10 digits.

Improving memory can be made more challenging by trying to remember words that are not easy to visualize such as or, next, that, yet, for. You can also exercise the brain by trying to remember lists of words while jumping with a jump rope or drawing xxx's across a page. It is also fun and challenging to try to memorize the grocery list and see if you end up with all the items in your basket at the check out line. This can be a competitive sport if you divide the grocery list in half.

After professional brain training, most of our students can easily remember a list of 20 items, and many can do more. One of my favorite memory techniques is to throw distracting words in while my students are trying to memorize a list. For example while they are trying to learn a list I add in several color words that they are supposed to ignore while they memorize their word list. 


Brain Training Games to Play in the Car

Brain training is fun and rewarding. Busy parents can easily reinforce brain training even while they are driving around in their mini vans. Here is a top ten list of easy brain training games for families on the go.... 

Ten Brain Exercises for Families on the Go

1. Have your student call out the number and suit on a standard deck of playing cards as fast as they can go. Record their time on a timer as well as the number of mistakes that are made, so that you can see the speed and accuracy improve as they go along. Make sure they say number and suit correctly and in the same order each time such as four of clubs, or king of diamonds. They should complete all 52 cards in the playing deck before you record their time.

2. Make the first activity more challenging by using the same deck of playing cards and having the student mentally project what the playing card would be if you moved, say, two spaces up the card deck. For example, if the card shows a five of hearts then the correct answer would be the seven of hearts.  If the card that appears is then ten of spades, then the answer is the queen of spades. If the card shown is the king of clubs, then the answer is the two of clubs. If the card displayed is the ace of diamonds then the answer is the three of diamonds. So the card deck does have a wrap around effect.

3. Keep a tennis ball in your car. Have your student throw a tennis ball rhythmically from one hand to the other hand while they spell their spelling words one letter at a time. This can also be used to orally say their times tables, or skip count. A jump rope or a step bench can be substituted for the tennis ball.

4. Keep a tablet of graph paper in your car. To improve attention and concentration, tell your student to draw a repeating pattern of shapes in the boxes such as circle, triangle, rectangle, star. See if they can draw the pattern correctly for one minute. Progress to 2, 3, and 4 minutes to lengthen the attention span and time on task. Ask them to proof their work for mistakes, and mark any mistakes with a highlighter pen.

5. Practice note taking and memory by having your children write down license plate numbers as well as make, model, and color of passing vehicles. Two children or more can play at the same time, and can compare their notes to see who has the most entries in 10 minutes, and who would make the best detective or police officer.

6. Using paper and a pencil, give your student a time on the clock, such as 11:15 am central standard time. Ask them to draw that time on a traditional clock face with minute and hour hand as well as record that time in writing as it would appear on a digital clock.  Next tell them to draw the clock as it would appear in 6 hours and thirty minutes. Draw the clock as it appeared 2 hours and 10 minutes ago. What time would it be in New York??? in California??? In Hawaii????

7. To improve both memory and attention, say the alphabet backwards, spell your full name (first, middle, and last) backwards.  Recite the pledge of allegiance backwards.

8. Play category  games: List all the colors that you know in one minute, in two minutes. List all the words that you know that mean small (tiny, little, petite, miniature, nano, micro, elfin). List all the breeds of dogs you know, list all the words that you know that mean red (scarlet, auburn, crimson, brick, lipstick, cherry).  Can you clip paperclips together while you say them?

9. Keep a few simple children's board puzzles in the car. They should be 20 pieces or less. How quickly can you assemble it? To increase the difficulty level, spray the entire puzzle one color...assemble it on a timer and try to go faster and faster.

10. Keep two identical U.S. maps in the car. Play games to try to improve your students ability to listen and follow multistep directions and develop orientation skills. Start the game in your home state. Go two states East, go two states North, go one state West....What is the name of the capital city where you end up????

Easy materials to keep in the car

List of the materials you can keep in a grab bag in your car for brain training on the go:

  • Deck of regular playing cards
  • Stop watch or cell phone timer
  • Lined paper
  • Copy paper
  • Pencils & pens, highlighters
  • Tennis ball
  • Spelling word list
  • Jump rope
  • Graph paper
  • Box of colored jumbo paper clips
  • Children's board puzzle (20 pieces or less)
  • Two matching U.S maps

© 2012, Jane Davis.  Jane is the owner of Brain Potential Institute headquartered in Conroe, TX.

If you would like to find out more about comprehensive brain training programs to improve attention, memory, brain speed, and auditory processing that raise IQ's from 10 to 30 points, or are interested in brain training for kids and adults with ADD/ADHD, Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorders, Aspergers, Autism, Learning Disabilities, or bright children or teens who are underachieving in the classroom, check out the web site for Brain Potential Institute or call 936-539-4574.

Free Screenings are available, and they do Skype consulting and treatment with clients all over the U.S. and worldwide. Financing and parent training are available.