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5 Essential Skills Kids Need to Shine

And 66 Fun Ways to Hone Them

Highlights 4Cs

Curious, Creative, Caring, and Confident™
The light bulb icon represents curiosity. For content about raising a curious child, look for this icon.
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Want to help your child learn to rock these essential skills? Start playing!
Knowing how to learn and use the brain is a skill all on its own.

Experts call this important concept executive function, and kids need it in order to learn new academic topics, manage their time effectively, and collaborate with others.

Skills that fall under this umbrella (and serve kids best when fine-tuned during the school years) are:

  • Mental flexibility (or flexible thinking): Trying a new strategy when things aren’t going well; learning rules or facts and applying them in new situations; problem solving
  • Focus: Paying attention to teachers and other students, as well as complicated rules and processes
  • Working memory: Keeping key information in mind when playing or reading (Who’s on my team? Who wrote the Gettysburg address? In this game, is an ace a good card or a bad one?)
  • Self-regulation (also called self-control or “inhibition”): Obeying social rules and routines; knowing when to speak or act and when not to
  • Planning: Thinking a few steps ahead, anticipating what others might do, and adjusting as you go—for instance, planning the next chess move or what art supplies to buy for a project that's due next week.

Happily, school-age kids have already been working on these skills for years. The goal in grade school is to strengthen those skills through practice and challenges—making games and activities just a little bit harder and more complex so kids can stretch to meet new goals. Your child can get that practice through family game nights and other fun activities. Many of the ideas below come from the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. No homework, flashcards, or worksheets required!

For Card Sharks

Remembering where cards are helps kids strengthen their working memory: concentration, go fish, old maid, hearts, spades, rummy, poker

Games with matching, and with rules that can change, both offer practice in mental flexibility: crazy eights, Uno, spoons, Fluxx, Exploding Kittens

Fast-hands games require kids to pay attention and control their actions: snap, slapjack, spit

No-Boredom Board Games

Lots of board games involve strategy, which in turn includes elements of working memory, self-regulation, and flexible thinking: Sorry!, Battleship, Parcheesi, mancala, checkers, chess, go, Ticket to Ride, Dungeons & Dragons

Logic and puzzle games also help kids work on memory and cognitive flexibility: Mastermind, Traffic Jam, AnimaLogic, Labyrinth

Get-Moving Games

Games that incorporate physical activity aren’t just good for your child’s body: They are good for her brain too! Many challenge kids’ attention and self-control: freeze dance; musical chairs; Red Light, Green Light; duck, duck, goose; Simon Says; hide-and-seek; Ghost in the Graveyard.

Whenever a child is “It” in a tag game, he’s using his working memory, and attention skills: Mother May I?; What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?; freeze tag; sock tag; sharks and minnows (in the pool or on dry land).

Add a ball, and kids need to work extra hard on focusing and decision- making: four-square, dodgeball, tetherball. Organized sports are good for practicing strategy and flexible thinking: soccer, basketball, volleyball, hockey.

Ditto for a jump rope; these games let kids practice their focusing and memory skills: jump rope, double Dutch, Chinese jump-rope chants.

Sing-along Games

Kids this age can move on from basic songs with movement to more difficult activities. Build memory, focus, and self-control skills by singing rounds, such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat; Make New Friends, Frère Jacques.

Chants with clapping also help with memory and self-control, plus mental flexibility: Miss Mary Mack; Miss Susie; A Sailor Went to Sea; Say, Say, My Playmate


Jigsaw puzzles require planning, memory, and flexibility. I Spy books, games, and puzzles help with focus.

Pen-and-paper puzzles are good for strengthening working memory practicing mental flexibility (using a familiar letter, word, or number in a new way, and correcting mistakes): word finds, crosswords, mazes, Sudoku.

Spatial puzzles are also a challenge for mental flexibility: Rubik’s Cube, Perplexus.

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