Monday, December 19, 2011

Brain Sharpening Games: Part 1

You get help when recreating what you saw but don't be fooled, it's not easy!

WHAT: ThinkFun's Cartoon It!
DOES: allows you to work on your "working memory" (the memory that you use to complete tasks and more), lets you exercise your drawing abilities
INVEST: $19.99 ($17.50 on Amazon today)
TOOLS: Remember to Learn (if your memory is so-so); Social Scene Helper (if you're shy but can draw a little and you have an awesome memory)

Being a kid growing up in New York City, I was exposed to children from many different places.  So many of these kids would often talk about school experiences in their former countries and even show how they learned things differently.

For example, I learned the times table in Queens, New York by folding some paper into columns and writing out each table like this:
2 X 3 = 6
2 X 4 =8
2 X 5 =10
over and over etc..

But once I met another kid from Korea who recited the times table to me this way:

He stood with his body tilting and swaying a little bit and he recited the times tables with almost no tone, almost like he was meditating.  He also sounded like he could go on reciting all the tables forever.  I was in awe.

Committing things to memory is challenging.  We all have tricks here and there but at least we only need to memorize things for tests, right?  For the rest of the day, we can just turn on our green light and go.

But what if we can't? What if we can't remember things not just for tests but just to function at home and at school? Here is an example of memory failure in daily living, ever say something like this? "I specifically told you to bring this here and then go start your bath but you went straight to the bath! Why?"

Psychologists will likely tell you that this is what is known as a working memory issue and some people are born with better working memory than others.

By the way, I don't think that working memory has anything to do with intelligence because I'm pretty sure that Number 1 is an amazing thinker but his working memory is really in need of a makeover.  I can easily relate to him on this as well.  I go into rooms ten times a day wondering why I went there.  I will even stop what I'm doing on a computer, open a new window in my browser, type in a web address, and by the time the home page appears, I do not know why I'm there.

This has got to stop!  But can it be stopped?  Can I help my son (and maybe me) with his working memory?

You can grade yourself!  You can even practice by yourself!

"Yes," says Anil Chacko, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queens College in New York City.  Dr. Chacko is also working on a treatment development grant from the NIH*, known as RAMP (Refining Attention Memory and Parenting) Study which is examining whether a computerized working memory training program in combination with a parenting program will improve the social, emotional, and academic functioning of children with ADHD*.

"Working memory is not fixed." Dr. Chacko added that studies have found that working memory can actually improve, even in a matter of one year, particularly for younger children.

Can you hear the birds singing?  I can.

Even before talking with Dr. Chacko, I was hoping this could be true.  You hear enough about it, know that there are tons of theories out there but how much about improving memory in children do we really know?  In fact, after reading this story, I invite you to google "memory" and "training" or "games" and you will see a flood of choices asking you to try these games with prices ranging from free to the thousands of dollars.  There is a penny to be made here.  Maybe a whole lotta pennies.  Why?

Well, take Number 1.  He knows his memory is not great.  It frustrates him a lot and I can understand that.  Memory is very personal.  So of course I go online and see what I can buy to fix this.

Okay, I know that I can not buy anything to "fix" it but maybe there are tools to help me try.  It didn't take me long to find  Cartoon It!, a game made by ThinkFun.

(video courtesy of Think Fun)

This company has a special place in my heart because of their game Rush Hour Traffic Jam. When Number 1 was little, he mastered the Junior version of this game so quickly.  I was so proud of him and this is really significant because I think he was around 5 years old and he was really driving me crazy.   But that puzzle was so much fun, it just drew him in.  It gave him a lot of confidence.  So, of course, when I am looking for fun things for Number 1, I frequently go to this site to check out what is new.

And there it was. When I think memory games, I think about preschool matching cards.  This game is not  like that at all. But, are there pictures? Yes. Is there card flipping? Yes.  But YOU must match it yourself by drawing it out.  And if you do it the fastest, you get an extra point. How awesome is that?

I love this two-step process.  You basically look at the card with a cartoon face and then when the timer is up, you flip the card back over and then draw.  To me, writing it out or saying it out loud commits things to memory.  And don't worry if you are not an artist, they give hints on a board like a multiple choice question and the choices are not that similar so that it looks like a trick question.  Lastly, there is a self-grading part.  That is cool.  I love that.  The directions also give suggestions of what to do if there is a disagreement.

But the game is still hard for my Number 1.  After a couple of rounds, he flipped over the game board, barked some angry talk, and stomped away.

What's a mother to think?  For me, I thought, "Jackpot!" I know it is a little evil of me but hey, we hit a soft spot!   If this taxed him, then the enemy has identified itself and I can use this game to help him not just with his memory skills but also teach him how to cope with feeling crappy when he has a memory mishap.

And of course, games are supposed to be pleasurable but the added dimension to why he's upset is that he does like the game.  He also gets to play with his family! It's understandable that he wants to be successful around us.   He also likes to draw and through this, I noticed something else.  He draws really small!  Wow!  I don't know why but it's not necessarily a bad thing.  It's kind of cute.  I just have to encourage him to make a big enough face to fit the features.  It's a planning skill that also needs work here.

Lastly, did you see this video above?  It is awesome.  I still haven't read the instructions and I've had this game for almost three months.  I HATE READING INSTRUCTIONS! Who wants to read instructions in front of two impatient kids!  This is what is good about today's world.  Video instructions make it easier for a parent to explain a game. For some kids, it even does an excellent job of getting them started.

Later, we played the game again with Number 1 and he did better.  I also found it to be a natural time to have an open discussion talking about memory strategies like the fact there are such things as memory strategies and that people do in fact use them to succeed.  And this is not limited to spelling tests!   For example, Number 3 told Number 1 that every time she saw a face, she called it a name like "grumpy" or "excited" and that helped her remember the features. She won the game.

At another game night, my husband also told my son to look at the columns and remember the sequence of numbers as you go down the board. see photo above. (Face is in 1st column, eyes 3rd column, ears 5th column, nose 2nd column thus 1,3,5,2...)  I have a feeling that this is more compensatory than Number 3's idea but I like that Number 1 can start learning how to compensate.  We are all different and once we know ourselves, we can work concurrently on strengthening a weakness but at the same time learn to cope so we can function right now and in this case, play a game and have fun with friends.

But even if I liked memory games and had a great one like Cartoon It!, how do I know how much I should play to make a difference in his life?  Dr. Chacko said we just don't know the answer to this question but he gave me a very good common sense analogy that we can apply to this equation.

Think of memory games like trying to lose weight, he said.  Can you make an impact with doing just a few minutes of exercise per month?  Obviously not.  But maybe if we increase the "dose" we can increase the impact.    So how are we supposed to figure out how much is good enough?  And is working memory really a big deal beyond just getting in trouble by Mom?  What about school? Is working memory helping you for spelling tests and memory games or is it more than that?

All I can say is that there is a lot more to say and you'll see it here tomorrow when we discuss a remake of an immensely popular memory game that came to the market this year.

For now, know that as a parent, I adore this game.  For the conversations that sparked from it alone, I am grateful.  I also don't think anyone should be upset when playing this game.  In fact, I think we can modify it so that it can serve lots of families.  We have even figured out a way to play it alone and with Number 2 who is still just four.  Believe it or not, even though he is just four, when helped, he can be pretty damn good at this game.  I wouldn't be surprised if we keep playing and the kids beat the adults.  This also tells me that if your child's memory is good, use this as a social scene helper if he needs it or at home just as a confidence boost!  Not everything has to be aimed at improving your skills. After all, it's a game and it's supposed to be fun and having fun with your family is an aim for any game.

Come back tomorrow when you'll read more of Dr. Chacko's very wise perspective on working memory.

Click Here: Brain Sharpening Series Part 2
Click Here: Brain Sharpening Series Part 3

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Disclosure statement: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by the manufacturer of any of the mentioned products for the publication of this post.  Toys are Tools has received permission for the inclusion of this video to publish in this post.

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