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Using Games to Support Executive Functioning Skills

I have always been a big board game fan. I love the obscure 4+ hour strategic games and the quick games of chance. Games are a big part of our family life, and I also try to weave games into all of my sessions with students.

Games are frequently used as a reinforcer for a less exciting task. Practice these words, then take a turn in your game. Adding words to Jenga and Connect 4 pieces, incorporating dart boards or mini basketball hoops, or embedding word combinations into grid games like Dots and Boxes or Bingo - these are great strategies to increase engagement. But I really love when the game itself can be used to shape skill development. Today's post is all about using games to support weaknesses in executive functioning - starting with understanding executive functioning skills. Let's turn to a game analogy for a better understanding. How about a game of Gin Rummy?

Before we can even play this card game, we have to consider several cognitive functions that are necessary for executive functioning. To start, you need a deck of cards - Gin Rummy is a card game after all, right? The deck of cards represents attention. You cannot play Gin Rummy unless you have a set of 52 cards. Moving on, we know from playing other card games in our lives that we need to shuffle this deck. Shuffling a deck represents cognitive flexibility. Is there a precise number of times we shuffle this deck? Not really, we have to rely on a general feeling if our shuffling was effective or not. As we're shuffling the cards, we notice some jokers still in the deck. Finding jokers represents inhibitory control. Whoops! We don't need jokers, so we have to set them aside. Finally, we'll deal the cards - 10 cards to each player. The cards you are dealt represent working memory. These are the cards each player must work with to play the game. Sometimes physically holding all 10 cards is a bit challenging. We do get better with practice, and there are some great card-holding tools to help us.

Executive functioning relies on the 4 cognitive functions: attention, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory. Playing Gin Rummy relies on a deck of cards, appropriately shuffled, no jokers, and 10 cards dealt to each player. Now we can play the game!

If you haven't played Gin Rummy before, check out this tutorial.

Executive functioning skills functionally describe how we go about our routine and novel tasks. They rely on those cognitive functions (that shuffled deck of cards) - so if we know one or more of those functions is impacted, there is a good chance that executive functioning skills are also impacted. These skills can play out in different ways depending on age and school/life demands. Let's continue with the Gin Rummy analogy:

  • Planning and taking actions toward a goal: In Gin Rummy we keep in mind the long-term goal over several hands to get to 100 points. We can break down a goal into smaller chunks by thinking about successful turns, achieving runs or sets, and winning individual hands.

  • Analyzing and self-monitoring: Each turn will offer different options to analyze. Will we take the card we can see or take a chance with a new card? Which card is best to discard? We have to keep track of multiple options: sets and runs.

  • Organizing, shifting, and reorganizing: we need to keep our 10 cards organized, but sometimes we have opportunities to shift our cards for a better outcome. Sometimes we need to completely scrap a plan to work towards something else that is necessary.

  • Considering and incorporating multiple perspectives: Gin Rummy isn't a solo game. We do need to consider the other player's actions when deciding to "knock" or "go gin." Ultimately, we'd like to win this game, but we also have a relationship with the other player and it's nice to be a good sport.

Good game, that was fun! I hope this game analogy finds it's way to help students understand executive functioning skills. Stay tuned for future posts on how to use games and gaming language to further shape and practice executive functioning skills.

Game on!



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