Games that Help Children Make Connections

Originally posted March 07, 2010

By Ellen Galinsky

Many of the tasks used by the researchers who are featured in Mind in the Making can be adapted as games you can play with your children. Remember, however, that executive functions are orchestrated by the prefrontal cortex of the brain, a part of the brain that doesn’t really begin to mature until kids are older preschoolers. So while you can play some of these games with younger children, it’s important not to push children beyond their developmental capacities— an experience that would be frustrating for you and even more frustrating for them.

Games must be fun in order to be effective, so if you find that your children don’t want to play, stop and wait for a better time or a better age. For the day time, we’ve invested in childrens outdoor play equipment to keep them occupied and to burn their energy through the day. I find that with my children, they love playing them right before bed. We have a game or two, and then I go and tuck them into their twin mattress for a good nights sleep.

With two-year-olds, you can play sorting games. When my children were young, I bought a series of big colorful plastic stacking containers to aid and abet Philip’s joy in sorting. In one, we had big Legos; in another, we had plastic animals that Philip and Lara could use in their Lego constructions; in another, we had small table blocks for further building; and in another we had stuffed animals. Both children mixed and matched the contents of these containers (and the containers themselves) in any number of ways. And when it came time to clean up, that, too, became a sorting and categorizing game.

With two-year-olds and older, you can also make your own playing cards. Phil Zelazo uses pictures of everyday objects such as stars and trucks for the Dimensional Change Card Sort, but you can use any kind of picture. For example, cut and paste pictures from magazines or from copies of your children’s drawings, or print out clip art from the Internet. You could also build on your child’s passions: if your child loves dogs, use different images of dogs (black dogs and white dogs, dogs with spots and dogs without spots).With two-year-olds and older, you can play the color game, where children put all the pictures of one color together, or the shape game, where children put the same objects together, or the size game, where children put all big objects or little objects together. Don’t try to switch the rules (from the color to the shape game) with children under four, however. That’s a skill they will obtain later. You can make this game more complex for children between five and seven, as Zelazo does in his research, by embedding the rules in the cards. A black border around the edge of the cards means that the child is to play the color game, while no black border indicates that the child will play the shape game.

At four and older, you can play the Reverse Categorization Task, where children first sort toys in the baby bucket and the mommy bucket and then switch and put the baby toys in the mommy bucket and the mommy toys in the baby bucket.

Create a game like the Flexible Item Selection Task (FIST). Here you set out a series of three cards, each with a picture (for example, a red dog, a black dog, and a black cat). You can ask your child to pick out “two pictures that go together in one way”—without any explicit directions for how they might be matched. Your child might pick the two dogs. Then you can ask your child to pick “two pictures that go together in another way.” Your child might pick the black dog and the black cat because both are black. You could also ask: “How do all the pictures go together?” (All the animals have fur . . . tails . . . noses . . . mouths . . . eyes . . . etc.) You can make lots of different cards to promote this kind of sorting. As your child gets older, you can introduce them to sporting games and clubs, I can;t wait for my children to have Los Angeles Tennis Lessons!

Share your thoughts: We invite you to try these ideas out and let us know what you think. Do you have your own suggestions for games that can help children make connections (including the unusual ones)?

Ellen Galinsky is president of Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs


Image source: via Google Images