There has been a lot of recent attention focused on the importance of executive function for successful learning.
Many researchers and educators believe that this group of skills, which enable a child to formulate and pursue goals, are more important to learning and educational success than IQ or inherent academic talent.
Learning to shop wisely and to prepare food are useful life skills which are becoming more important with rising food prices and economic uncertainty. Young children can be helpful in the kitchen given a little guidance. We taught our kids how to roll out their own tortillas, which was messy, but they were proud to contribute to the meal. And they would eat just about anything if it were wrapped in one of their tortillas. When shopping, we practiced thrift
. I remember preparing to order in a breakfast restaurant, and one of our kids asked the waitress for “bacon on sale”, thinking that was what you call “bacon”.
Kids with weak executive function face numerous challenges in school. They find it difficult to focus their attention or control their behavior—to plan, prioritize, strategize, switch tasks, or hold information in their working memory.
Eating together as a family is more important today than in the past because there are more competing distractions, more choices of activities outside the home, and a constant bombardment of information from modern technology
. During the day most of us are out in the community mixing with all kinds of people. Our children are learning about the world from many sources, often without parental filters or input. Even when everyone is home, individuals do their own thing. Perhaps the only opportunity of the day to talk with each other is at the dinner table.
As a teacher and a parent, I’m always looking for fun ways to shore up these skills in my students and my children.
I recently reported on the benefits of free play and noted that kids who spend a lot of time in adult-organized and structured activities such as lessons, athletic practice, or highly scheduled camps get fewer opportunities to strengthen self-directed executive function.
Free play is a fantastic default mode for summer, but when the lightning flashes, the thunder roars, and the words “I’m bored” escape my children’s lips, I reach for games.
Not the electronic kinds that require a controller and a background check at Common Sense Media—the kind that rattle around in a box and require human interaction and cognitive engagement.
A strong family finds that opportunities for quality time emerge from quantity time: The more time you spend together, the better chance you have of sharing quality experiences. Eating meals together, talking about the events of the day, sharing joys and defeats, doing household chores together and spending some evenings popping corn and watching movies are examples of shared
activities. Some families even schedule one evening every week for special family activities.
It turns out that some of my family’s favorite games are educational tools in disguise. Dr. Bill Hudenko, child psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, uses board games in his practice to diagnose and strengthen these much-touted executive function skills.
With more than a decade between the eldest and the youngest children in my family, growing up there were few things we held in common. On a regular day, there was only so much my older brothers could take hearing about my most recent boy band crush or school girl drama
. Nor did I have much interest in their discussions of computers or the political matters that
were beyond the understanding of a tween girl.
He also encourages parents to play these games with their children at home.
Dr. Hudenko was kind enough to share his five favorite executive function-building games with me, and I recruited my children as unwitting lab rats in a bit of field-testing.
Probably the main reason we favor convenience food is the perception that home-cooked meals take more time to put together. This can certainly be the case. But there are shortcuts we can use to make food preparation fast and easy. Soups and stews can be made in quantities large enough to last two or three dinners. And when cooking rice or potatoes, make enough for a few meals. Recipes can be kept simple if you cook using fresh ingredients, and meals will still taste delicious.
I’m going to start with my 10 year-old son’s favorite game, Swish.
Jessica Lahey/The Atlantic
Skills required: Visual-spatial processing, working memory, attention, concentration, processing speed, and impulse control
Swish consists of a deck of transparent cards with circles and hoops in varying colors and positions.
The players must look at an array of as many as 12 cards and identify matches, or “swishes,” in which the appropriately colored circles and hoops of two cards line up. Because the cards are transparent, they may be flipped over and rotated to complete a swish.
April 27, 2017 | Tracy Trautner | Disciplining stepchildren as a stepparent is tough. Consider these tips for having a successful stepparent/stepchild relationship.
In an email, Dr. Hudenko elaborated on the benefits of Swish for kids with impulse control and working memory deficits:
Children with executive functioning deficits often struggle with the heavy working memory demands of mentally rotating the cards and sequentially identifying additional card matches.
This game also is particularly helpful for developing an appropriate balance between impulse control and increasing processing speed as the child is trying to be the first to identify a “swish.
Children need to learn how the cost of convenience foods goes beyond the purchase price. The environmental costs of individual portion packaging, for manufacturing and disposal, are significant. A major perpetrator of deforestation in the South is the fast food industry. With nearly 100 paper packaging mills in the US South and thousands of restaurants worldwide, major fast food retailers such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC and Taco Bell are leaders in paper consumption and subsequent waste.
My 15-year-old son’s favorite game is Quarto! (I believe because he is our family’s reigning champion).
Jessica Lahey/The Atlantic
Skills required: Working memory, reasoning, planning, attention, and concentration
Quarto! is played with a board and 16 pieces that each have four different physical attributes: height, shape, color, and indentation or flatness.
The object of Quarto! is to line up four pieces that share the same attribute, but that goal is not as simple as it sounds, because you don’t get to choose which piece you play—your opponent does.
When my husband Greg was a child, his family ate at a round table. The table was inherited from grandparents, and placing it in the dining room suited the shape of the room. But there was another benefit to the round table which was less apparent: because there was no “head” to the table, everyone in the family had an equal place. The ambience was very democratic
- the children shared ideas
with their parents as equals, and this encouraged the spontaneous and relaxed sharing of ideas.
Quarto! taxes players’ working memory and attention because there are so many possible configurations of the game pieces. In order to prevent your opponent from winning, you must figure out all the possible winning moves available to your opponent and not give him or her those pieces.
As a child my father always told me to “Do what’s right” and to “stick up for the things I believe in.” I would always take in these wise words and life lessons that my father taught me and whenever it came to decision making, I would always look back to when my father and I would
have these life lesson conversations. For most of my life I believed that because
of these experiences my father has given me I was strong and confident in whatever decisions I made. This all came falling to pieces for me when I was faced with an impossible decision that needed to be made.
While the game is complex in practice, younger children can understand the rules and improve their working memory as they improve. For children who really need to work on their ability to plan and create systems
, Dr. Hudenko recommends the following adaptation:
Allow the child to create his or her own system to keep track of which pieces should not be given to the opponent.
If the child requires prompting to develop a system, provide her or him with a paper and pencil and suggest that he or she can write down or draw which pieces would lead to defeat if they were given to the opponent.
My mother planned well-balanced meals using few convenience foods because cooking from scratch was always more economical, healthful, and tasty. My dad had a garden and a few fruit trees which provided fresh produce. To supplement, in summer we would go to big farms to do the last picking of strawberries, peaches, plums, corn, etc. Then we would spend hours freezing or canning summer’s bounty to enjoy all winter. In the fall my father would go deer
hunting and we would have organic venison. Also there were local pasture-fed animals to source from farmers. We knew where our food came from, and it was almost always locally sourced.
This approach can create a wonderful learning opportunity wherein children recognize the importance of using assistive techniques to compensate for difficulties with executive functioning.
One game that most families have stashed away in a box or trunk is Chess, and it’s a one of the world’s oldest and most popular strategy games.
Jessica Lahey/The Atlantic
Skills required: Attention, concentration, working memory, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and impulse control
As the rules of chess are both complex and widely known (or easily searchable), I will skip right on ahead to Dr. Hudenko’s description of the game’s benefits:
Chess requires children to attend to multiple emerging scenarios as they evolve on the board.
Advanced players learn to think many moves in advance.
Start with the family meal. “A family that dines together stays together” is a phrase that I have heard for years. Having a meal with your children away from distractions such as the TV, video games and cell phones can help start those conversations that you would like to, or need to have with your children
. For more information about family meal ideas go to Family Meals are Important.
Playing chess necessitates the successful use of problem solving, planning, and reasoning skills that are the hallmark of healthy executive functioning. Chess also can provide a platform for teaching impulsive children to slow down
and think carefully before acting in a way that leads to the loss of a piece.
Children in today’s busy world need a shared, safe space to discuss ideas within the understanding company of family, and parents need a routine time to connect with kids.
For younger children, who may lose patience with the pace or complexity of the game, Dr. Hudenko suggests simplifications such as limiting the way pieces can move around the board. He adds that this can also quicken the pace of the game.
The variety and convenience of ‘fast food’ has certainly taken a bite out of family mealtimes. And with good reason. Food franchises have learned how to cater to our fast-paced lifestyles by delivering a wide range of food items ‘on the go’ at low cost. Today, with 19% of meals in the US being eaten in cars, we’ve come to depend on ready access to food
. But while convenience foods have their place, especially for quick breakfasts and lunches for working people, they are no substitute for family dinners eaten together.
And for kids who already know the rules and tend to be inflexible in their thinking, changing the rules can help them adapt to the concept of change.
The newest game in our home, but one that has quickly become a favorite, is Quoridor.
Jessica Lahey/The Atlantic
Skills required: Reasoning, planning, and problem solving
I like this game because I enjoy switching between a defensive and offensive mindset, and that flexibility is the key to winning Quoridor.
The object of the game is to navigate through “corridors” that your opponent creates in order to advance to the opposite side of the board.
On Sundays though, an hour or two before sunset, a transformation occurred in our home. The long table in our kitchen, whose job day to day was to hold mail and unfinished homework, as well as be a quick pit stop for filling empty bellies, shifted into something much more. Dressed nicely with linen placemats and napkins, the long table became the setting for a family ritual that somehow, in an almost magical way, quieted the differences between us just enough so we could share a meal and get to know each other.
With each move, a player either moves his or her token or places a piece of barrier that will foil the opponent. Dr. Hudenko explains the challenges inherent in Quoridor’s play:
To emerge victorious, children must learn to carefully observe the opponent’s strategy and thoughtfully plan an effective offense and defense.
This game is a good executive functioning challenge because each player is allowed only 10 barriers—which necessitates judicious planning and problem solving to outwit an opponent.
When our children were young, one of the common threads of table conversation was acknowledging where our food came from. Each item usually had a story, such as where bananas grew and what kind of trip they had coming to our home. By growing and raising much of our food, the children learned the
basics of gardening and took more interest in meals. They might have picked the broccoli, helped make applesauce from apples they picked by climbing trees, or collected the eggs for the omelet.
Finally, no article about executive function games would be complete without a mention of Set.
Jessica Lahey/The Atlantic
Skills required: Sequential searching, working memory, mental speed, visual-spatial processing, concentration, and processing speed
The goal of Set is, as the name would suggest, to be the first player to create a set of three cards similar in either number, symbol, shading, or color.
The rules of the game are simple, Hudenko says, but deceptively so:
Though simple in design, this game requires immense executive functioning skill to search through cards and hold in working memory the specific features that are required for a successful card match.
In my family, we often adapt the basic rules of Set, mainly because some home-grown versions can be played in the car or on kids’ laps.
Hudenko explains that one adaptation of the Set rules mimics a popular neuropsychological test called the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), a sensitive measure of executive functioning deficit.
The phrase “creature of habit” could very well have been invented in our family. Sunday Family Dinner’s menu every week was (is) steak, potatoes and salad. On occasion and by request only, my father would grill up some fish or burgers along with the steak. But the steak, potatoes and salad always remained the principal of the meal. It was the consistency, something comforting you could count on each week, that brought us back home no matter what and made Sunday Family Dinners a success
Choose 3 cards that differ across all 4 categories and place them in front of the child. Think of a “mystery matching rule” that will group the cards (eg., match on color) and help her discover the rule. Give her one card at a time and have her place it next to one of the cards on the table.
Conversation was spontaneous and unpredictable, although negative topics were discouraged since they might impair our appetites. Discussion between bites was fun, and often interspersed with fits of giggling with my sisters, to my father’s constant
Confirm whether this match meets the “mystery matching rule,” and continue to work through a process of trial and error with successive cards until the child determines the “mystery matching rule.”
While Dr. Hudenko uses these games to identify deficits in his patients and tax their abilities in order to help them build coping mechanisms, they can help any child (or adult!) become a more flexible, organized, strategic thinker.
Doing things a child or spouse wants to do also sends a strong message of love. It’s a good idea to identify the things family members want to do together. In my family, we spend our summers showing goats together. Every weekend we pack up the coolers, show equipment, children and goats
, and we head to the next show.
As an added bonus, these games are fun ways to spend family time together, even if you have offspring like mine; the kind of kids who keep meticulous track of their win/loss records and hold them over your head for all eternity.
How much time should families spend together? That varies from family to family. Families with young children usually spend the most time together because young children need a great deal of physical care and guidance. Families with teenagers may spend less time together because teens naturally want to spend more time with their friends. Single parents need a break
from their children and may need more opportunity to enjoy the company of other adults.
“It serves no one, the media or Trump, to have an almost thermonuclear war with each other.”
I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
Sitting between our parents at either end of the table, my three older brothers and I would split time between our parents’ conversations and that of our own. I cannot even remember our specific conversations, whether it was music or sports or politics
, but I know that we actually talked to each other, about something! And little by little, Sunday by Sunday, we became more than just siblings, we became friends-with each other and with our parents.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila.
From there I would travel by car to a rural village.
I would like to share what family dinners mean to me. When I was growing up in rural northern California, I could always count on meeting my parents and two sisters at the maple dinner table around 6:30. We all helped getting dinner ready and would sit down together. For at least half an hour we would discuss how our day had gone, talked about matters which concerned us, and made future family plans. After a busy day our evening meal was a chance to gather our little tribe around the table and reconnect with each other. This pleasant time seemed like a reward for the day’s hard work.
When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
Some firm handshakes, forced smiles, and awkward sword dances. In short, nothing.
Let’s hear it for the Rainbow Tour
It’s been an incredible success
We weren’t quite sure, we had a few doubts
Will Evita win through?
But the answer is yes
There you are, I told you so
Makes no difference where she goes
The whole world over just the same
Just listen to them call her name
And who would underestimate the actress now?
—Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Evita
Like Donald Trump, Juan and Eva Perón were populists.
They seem to have shared Trump’s understanding of the purposes of philanthropy and the importance of fiscal probity.
The four siblings are now split between two cities in two states, so Sunday Family Dinner goes to the town that Mom and Dad claim as home for the time. Over the years we’ve added spouses and nieces and nephews to the long table. My father repeats some of
his stories from years ago and my mother finds herself forgetting which set of children she has already shared certain family updates with - do the Austin kids know this or was it the Fayetteville kids she told? But little by little, Sunday by Sunday, we continue to share our lives around a long table filled with simple good foods and friends.
And like Eva in 1947, Donald Trump has just completed a glitzy overseas trip.
It had ample farcical episodes: the Saudi king, the dictator of Egypt, and the president of the United States placing their hands on a glowing orb that evoked for some a lampoon of Lord of the Rings.
This nightly gathering was a common scene in America in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. People didn’t make plans around dinnertime and you were expected to be at your seat or sitting with your friend’s family at their table. Folks didn’t call during the dinner hour.
The secretary of state assuring us that no one overseas was paying attention to Trump’s domestic troubles (palpably, indeed laughably, untrue) even as his spokesman excluded the American press from a briefing attended by the considerably more
docile reporters of the Kingdom of Saudi
We we're thrilled to receive a number of entries full of great stories-from fiction to memoir, some made us laugh, others made us teary and some inspired us to call our moms. So thanks to all you readers who entered for your inspired tales of how much dinner traditions can really
mean. Here is the winning story!
The national-security adviser insisting, “The entire trip is about human rights, about all civilized people coming together to fight the hatred”—an odd remark to make in a country that lops the hands off thieves and the heads off apostates.
Being together daily at the table is an important chance to celebrate being a family: by staying in touch, learning about family culture, food, and practicing the social skills of dining and conversation. Family meals are for nourishment, comfort and support. And, food is better eaten with the people we love
The commerce secretary, in one of his more witlessly thuggish remarks, observing complacently about urban Riyadh: “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there.
Dining was about “us”, rather than the “I” so many families have evolved to cater to. There wasn’t a separate menu for each person. Even the babies had whatever we adults ate, just pureed or minced. If someone didn’t like
something they were given a dab, just in case this was the day it suddenly tasted good, which often happened. As kids, we were most enthusiastic about the dishes we had a part in producing.
” And then there were the video clips: Melania flicking away her husband’s groping hand and the Leader of the Free World giving the prime minister of little Montenegro a good hard shove.