For kids and teens who struggle with basic executive functioning skills, improving them isn’t always easy. Brain games can help with this by making it fun to practice skills like organization, time management, attention, and working memory. Whether kids are finding words in a puzzle or deciphering a hidden code, brain games turn a fun activity into meaningful executive functioning skills practice.
One important tip is to be transparent about which skills the games are working on. This can transform these games into true learning activities that build confidence and self-awareness in your learners. First, teach about executive functioning skills explicitly by explaining what they are and why they matter. Then, highlight each of the skills you’re working on as you play these brain games.
It also helps to teach kids and teens that they can improve and stretch their brains! These are essentially the foundation of developing a growth mindset. When we work at a particular skill, we can improve it over time with hard work and practice. This empowers children and young adults.
I’ve put together a book filled with Executive Functioning Brain Games to make it engaging for kids with no prep for you. Feel free to check it out if this is something your students could use.
Lots of these brain games are activities you can do easily in your morning meeting or a fun activity for early finishers. These can be a great way to start the morning as kids walk in the door of the classroom! Brain games can be a simple break at the end of a busy day or before moving on to another task. These are just another opportunity to integrate executive functioning skills into what you are already doing.
One more note: Not every game or activity is going to work for every child. It’s important to know your learners and what works for them. If a game is too challenging for your learner, it’s good to be flexible and try something else instead. Learning through games should be fun, engaging, and memorable.
Here are 10 brain games you can use to boost executive functioning skills with children and teens:
Decipher the Code
Before starting this game, you will need a key. For example, the letter a might be a heart emoji and the letter b might be a smiley face. Ultimately, you can choose any key you’d like! Create messages for kids and teens to decipher using the key. This can build skills for working memory, attention, and perseverance.
To play this game, you will need 3-5 pictures that show a sequence of an activity, such as making a sandwich or washing a dog. Have students put the pictures in order from start to finish. The more pictures, the more challenging the sequence will be. This game builds on skills for flexibility, planning, organization, and metacognition.
For this game, students will use a list of letters to come up with as many words as possible using those letters. The easiest way to start assigning this game is to start with a six- or seven-letter word in mind, such as “BRAINS.” Scramble the letters and list them on the board. Have students work to list out as many words as they can with those letters. They might list out words like: brain, brain, rain, rains, sir, and rib. A fun and simple activity that builds flexibility and perseverance, word whiz can be done with any letters or words of your choosing!
List challenge is an activity where students think of as many items as they can that fit a particular category. For example, set the timer for two minutes and have students list as many different items that belong at the beach. It might help to do this example as a group first before having students work on their own.
Other examples you might have students list in two minutes might include:
- Anything that start with the letter L (or any other letter)
- Words that rhyme with see (or any other word)
This activity builds skills for time management, flexibility, and metacognition. As a bonus, this is an activity you can repeat even after you’ve already covered a category. Students can even compare their lists from one month to another to see how they have grown.
Brainteasers are puzzles with words or phrases that learners need to figure out using logic. A very basic example is “MilONElion.” On its own, it looks like a jumbled phrase, but notice how the word “one” stands out. Using problem-solving and logic, one can notice that the “one” is in the word “million.” In other words, this brainteaser puzzle’s answer is “one in a million.” Because these puzzles can be a challenge, they are a great way to build skills for flexibility and perseverance.
Sudoku is a math game that involves grids. Each box, row, and column must includes the digits 1-9 with no repeats. Essentially, the Sudoku grids that students complete will have some numbers filled in, but they must figure out the missing numbers. This involves a lot of problem-solving, attention, and working memory skills in action.
To make it easier on students, provide versions with more numbers already included. To make it more of a challenge, include grids with less numbers.
Provide a set of 3-5 items. These can be pictures or words (that’s up to you). Have students study the items. Then, cover them up and have students repeat them (or draw them) back. This builds skills for attention and working memory.
Repeat It Back
For the game, provide a phrase to students by saying it aloud. Then, have kids write the phrase down exactly as it was first said. For example, you might say, “The cookies were amazing, so I ate two!” This activity helps learners work on attention, planning, and working memory skills.
If this is a challenge, try saying it to a beat or while clapping your hands.
For the phrases, you can make up your own, use study information for your class content, or add tongue twisters to make it extra fun. You can even allow the students to make up their own silly phrases and play along.
The goal of mystery number is for students to use clues to help them figure out what a specific number should be. Here’s an example: “The product of my two digits is 9. My first digit is 8 more than my second digit. What number am I?” Using the clues given, students can determine that the number is 91, because 9×1 is 9 and the first digit is 8 more than the second digit. Mystery number is a great option to build skills for working memory, flexibility, and perseverance.
Break It Down
For this activity, list off an activity, such as making a sandwich. Then, students will need to break down that activity into at least five unique steps. By “breaking it down,” students work on skills for planning and organization.
The options are really endless for activities, but here are a few you might try coming up with steps for:
- Cleaning your room
- Organizing your desk
- Going to soccer practice
- Making breakfast
- Turning in homework
More Executive Functioning Practice
Check out some of these other tips and support for executive functioning skills practice:
- All About Executive Functioning Skills
- Games to Improve Executive Functioning Skills
- 15+ Executive Functioning Strategies Every Teacher Can Use
- Parent Support for Executive Functioning Skills