You’re a progressive, 21st-century parent, right? You buy organic when you can, steer clear of anything with high fructose corn syrup and even considered cloth diapers (for about 20 seconds). You’d do anything to increase your child’s chances for wellness and success later in life. Well, here’s one of the cheapest and easiest ways to enhance your child’s future: brain-stimulating games.

How and why brain games help

“The root of later learning is grounded in strong cognitive skills,” explains psychologist Keith Gibson, Ph.D. “By helping their children build skills like memory, comprehension, logic and reasoning among others early— even before school years— parents are actually increasing the chance of academic success and likely life success.”

The cognitive skills that Gibson refers to are what his brother, Dr. Ken Gibson, writes about in his book, Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in your Child (LearningRx). In it, Dr. Gibson explains the importance of building strong cognitive skills early— even before kindergarten— to help prevent learning disabilities.

“It’s not about teaching your kids the ABCs,” says Dr. Gibson, who is also the founder of the national brain-training franchise, LearningRx. “Processing skills, like sound analysis in fun rhyming games, are much more important because they help [children] successfully think, understand, visualize and create useful associations, which will help with reading later. What good does it do if a child can point out the letter ‘B’ in a story, but doesn’t know what it sounds like?”

Best of all, honing cognitive skills is something that can help all children. As Sabra Gelfond-Ingall, co-director of the National Speech/Language Therapy Center in Bethesda, Maryland, explains, “New research in the field of brain plasticity shows that we can help the performance of children with unique learning styles and special needs. These children and the children who are labeled ‘underachievers’ may just need a little brain boot camp.”

No- and low-cost brain games

For toy store addicts, there are many store-bought games that can help improve a wide variety of cognitive skills. The original echo game, Simon, is great for auditory processing, memory and processing speed. Mastermind for Kids is a new version of an old classic that increases logic and reasoning. For older kids, board games like Stratego, chess and checkers can also help with mental tools like planning, memory, comprehension and focus. For very young children, phonic flashcards can be a great springboard to early reading skills, like sound analysis, sound blending and segmenting.

There are also plenty of free games that you can play to increase cognitive skills. The trick is to find several that are age-appropriate and your kids enjoy. Here are a few favorites:

  1. Paperless Tic-Tac-Toe: Take the classic game of tic-tac-toe and assign each box a number. Have your child visualize this grid in his mind and call off the box number in which he wants to place her mark. Also, try playing tic-tac-toe by drawing the grid in the air and pointing to the box in which you want to place your mark. What it helps: Memory, visualization, planning, focus, problem solving.
  2. 20 Questions: Think of a person or object and give your child 20 chances to narrow down what you’re thinking of by asking “yes” and “no” questions. To help children to improve their logic and reasoning skills, teach them to ask questions that should significantly narrow down the categories, such as “Are they alive?” or “Do we have one in our house?” What it helps: Logic, reasoning, memory.
  3. Poetry: Have your child choose four words that rhyme. Then ask him to create a poem.  What it helps: Auditory analysis, verbal rhythm, memory.
  4. The “Twinkle, Twinkle” Song: Have your child replace the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with state capitals. Want a twist for older kids? Have them include a rhyme at the end of each sentence. “Montpelier is the capital of Vermont state, and I think Phoenix, Arizona, is great…” What it helps: Mnemonics, memory, strategy, rhyming.
  5. The Picture-less Book: Read a passage from a book aloud but don’t show your child the pictures. Have your child describe the scene he heard using all of his senses. “I hear the ocean hitting the sand, I smell the fish, I can see the white clouds and the blue sky…” What it helps: Attention to detail, visual discrimination, comprehension, executive thinking.
  6. Abstract Storytelling: Have your child demonstrate a story, like Humpty Dumpty, by using objects from around the house, including paper clips, cups and pillows to represent items and thoughts in the story. For older kids, make this more difficult by having your child demonstrate more abstract thoughts, such as representing word problems through illustrations. What it helps: Executive thinking, comprehension, visual processing.
  7. The Visual Spelling Test: When studying with your child for an upcoming spelling test, ask him to visualize each word instead of writing it down and to write each letter in the air with his finger. Have him point to the location where each letter is visualized. Try spelling each word forward and backward. What it helps: Visualization, sound analysis, segmenting and blending.
  8. Needle in a Haystack: Take a page from a newspaper and time your child as he circles all occurrences of a specific letter. Identify which sound symbols are more easily found than others and focus on increasing both accuracy and speed. What it helps: Visual processing speed.

Whatever brain games you choose, make them fun for you and your kids!

“We now know that the more fun children have while they’re making these neural connections, the more they’ll actually learn,” explains Keith Gibson. “That’s why age-appropriate brain games work so well— kids don’t even realize they’re learning.”