Education

30-Day Family Brain Boosting challenge

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We all know that our bodies need physical exercise to stay healthy, but what about our brains? Kids’ (and adults’) brains need frequent stimulation and challenging exercises—not just to excel in school, but also for things like making real-life decisions, communicating effectively, focusing during work and play, and maintaining a sharp memory.

How do you make sure kids are getting in regular cognitive workouts? They don’t have to be academic chores that kids dread. Instead, brain boosters can be fun, and can even give you new ways to bond as a family.

Here are 30 brain-boosting activities that kids and adults of all ages can try, for a month-long family challenge. They’re sure to inspire you to come up with other smart ideas that work for your family, too!

1. Domino effect

Arranging dominoes can build concentration and problem-solving skills—plus they’re fun to knock down! Check out a domino artist’s creations for inspiration. If you don’t have dominoes (or even if you do), you can use Jenga pieces or wooden blocks, books, CD cases, or whatever else works!

2. Find the best deal

Have kids help you figure out the best deal by comparing unit prices for different brands at the grocery store or comparing deals and prices at various online stores. They’ll boost real-world math skills in the process!

3. Write a poem or rap

Work on creativity as well as language and vocabulary skills by challenging kids to write a rhyme to express themselves.

4. DIY mazes

Have kids make their own maze for you (or each other) to solve. Young kids can learn the concept of mazes and make a basic one on paper, while older kids could be challenged to build a more complicated 3D maze with cardboard or other household objects.

5. Cooking with math

Exercise real-world math and reading skills by making a recipe together. Talk about measurements and volume while you cook—and for an extra challenge, you can double or triple the recipe, convert cups to tablespoons, make substitutions, etc.

6. Puzzle it out

To boost spatial reasoning and other brain functions, do a big jigsaw puzzle—it can be a relaxing family activity—or even have kids design and construct their own puzzle using a drawing, photo, magazine page, or cardboard box cut into pieces they can reassemble.

7. Pick up a new word

Have each family member learn a new word from the dictionary, and challenge them to write (or for younger kids, tell) a short story that uses the word three times. It’ll stimulate many areas of the brain and boost their vocabulary, reading, and writing skills!

8. Lists by letter

Think of a category and a letter, and do a brain dump of everything you can think of that fits—for example, foods that start with B, or geographic places that start with C. You can either do a timed competition, or let everyone keep adding to the lists throughout the day or week. Either way, it uses their memory, writing skills, and vocabulary.

9. Memorize digits

Memorizing and repeating back strings of numbers in order can be an interesting memory exercise. Add real-world utility by seeing how many family or emergency phone numbers in your contact list kids can learn and recall. Make it a listening (auditory memory) challenge by only reciting the numbers out loud instead of letting kids look at them.

10. Debate it out

If there’s a small disagreement among family members, or something controversial in the news or community, take it as an opportunity to boost kids’ research, critical thinking, communication, and persuasion skills by hosting a debate. Invite each family member to present their argument along with three pieces of evidence.

11. Bodily coordination

Physical challenges can strengthen concentration as well as the brain-body connection and overall brain function. Try things like: rotating arms in opposite directions at the same time; using the non-dominant hand to write, eat, and brush teeth; attempting to wiggle each toe independently.

12. Learn a card game

Understanding the rules of a new card game, and then playing it together, takes a lot of brain power: listening, memory, math skills, and complex thought processes.

13. Narrate a story

Either cover up the words of a picture book (or use a wordless picture book), or mute a video where characters are interacting. Kids have to come up with the whole story or conversation! As well as sometimes being hilarious, this activity promotes creativity, observation, and important literacy skills.

14. Make up a magic trick

See if kids can trick you with a deck of cards or a coin. Let them watch a few videos of beginner magic tricks for inspiration. Not only is it fun to try to outsmart grownups, but working on magic tricks can also improve their creativity, problem solving, presentation skills, and more!

15. Try out a language

It may seem intimidating to learn another language, but you can start small: pick one phrase to learn in another language, watch a video, and have kids listen and work on the pronunciation until it sounds right and they understand what each word means. This encourages close listening, plus helps prepare the brain for learning patterns in all languages. To include motor skills practice, everyone can learn how to spell their own names in American Sign Language!

16. Learn a dance

Encourage kids to take an online dance class or follow along with a music video. Yes, this is good brain exercise too, because learning new dance moves can improve the brain’s processing speed and memory!

17. Five senses

While on an outing for the day, ask kids to notice what they see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. Have older kids write down as many words as they can under each sense. Not only will they be practicing literacy and observation skills, but just using all your senses can also help strengthen the brain.

18. Draw from memory

Work on memory and visual areas of the brain by trying to draw a detailed picture (or write/tell a detailed description) of something without looking at the object or person. Afterwards, look at the object or person again to see what you missed.

19. Try meditation

Meditation is not only for calming stress. A meditation routine can also help your memory and your brain’s ability to process information. There are a wealth of videos and apps out there to help beginners (and kids of all ages) learn to meditate.

20. Doodle-listening

Doodling can help improve concentration when listening (that’s why you often see so many doodles in the margins of class notes, or why you might doodle while you’re on the phone). So put on a podcast or documentary and let the whole family doodle for 10 minutes. Then pause it and see how much everyone can remember from what they listened to. If you want to try an experiment, listen to another 10 minutes without doodling, and see how much they retain.

21. Switch music genres

Have everyone in the family pick a music genre they don’t usually listen to—whether it’s classical, jazz, country, show tunes, or rap—and listen to the new genre all day or until they find something they like. It’s a cultural learning experience, as well as great stimulation for auditory, emotional, and other areas of the brain!

22. Guessing game

Playing a simple guessing game such as I Spy (for the youngest kids) or 20 Questions (for slightly older kids) can be a great way to kill time, but also helps them work on decision-making, memory, observation, pattern recognition, and categorization.

23. Serve brain food

Brain-boosting foods include fish, nuts, dark chocolate, whole grains, avocado, and blueberries. So come up with a menu that incorporates some of these foods, and explain the benefits to your family. As a bonus activity to power up planning skills and creativity, have kids brainstorm and plan new snack and meal ideas that include these brain-boosting foods.

24. Map readers

Print out a map of your neighborhood, let kids pick a (reasonably close and safe) spot on the map, ask them to find the fastest route, and have them try to lead you there. Map-reading and navigation use a lot of brain-heavy skills, including spatial reasoning, geometry, memory recall, and problem solving—plus communication skills if they’re working together to figure out the best route.

25. Building challenge

Building with Lego or any type of open-ended building blocks encourages spatial reasoning, creativity, concentration, problem solving and more! To make it a family challenge: Write down some objects on small pieces of paper and pass them out at random to each family member. Then split up the blocks evenly. Each person has to create the object they were assigned using only the blocks in front of them.

26. Game night

Lots of board games provide good mental exercise, from the simple math skills of using dice, to the complex decision-making of strategy-based games. So have fun over almost any age-appropriate board game—and start a new brain-boosting family tradition!

27. Make an ad

Have each kid pick one of their favorite toys or household objects and create an original advertisement or commercial (using video, illustration, or voice recording) that would convince someone to buy it. This activity is wonderful for critical thinking, creativity, literacy, and presentation skills.

28. Estimate a snack

Make snack time into math reasoning time! Dump a large amount of small food items that are the same size (such as pretzels, or Cheerios) in a clear jar and have everyone in the family estimate how many are in the jar. Write down each person’s estimate, then count the items to see who was closest. Finally, figure out how to divide up the snack evenly, with any extra (remainder) items going to the winner.

29. Improv a story

Improvisation (coming up with something creative on the fly) can help improve decision-making, listening, observation, literacy, and more. Try this game with the whole family: Take turns coming up with one sentence at a time of a story—or for a bigger challenge, take turns saying only one word at a time.

30. ABCs on the go

Alphabet-based games help stimulate literacy and cognition even while you’re on a long car ride, waiting in line, or making dinner. One simple game is to hunt for signs/packages/magazine covers that contain each letter of the alphabet in order. Another easy game is to pick a category (countries, cities, or store names) and take turns coming up with something that fits, in alphabetic order.

Exercising our brains has countless benefits, and doesn’t have to be boring or repetitive. Try these activities for a month and your kids will not only boost their brain power, but they’ll absorb the lesson that will make them lifelong learners—that learning is fun!

If you enjoyed this, check out our other 30-Day Challenges for families!

And don’t forget to get your free printables for each of these fun and connection-building challenges!


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.