Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Think Simon Says is a simple children’s game? Think again, suggests a recent item in The New York Times that offers more evidence of the important role of play in developing critical executive function skills in young children.  As I noted in an earlier blog post (With Young Children, Play is the Curriculum), play helps children learn the executive function skills that research finds are important for school success.

“A growing body of research suggests that playing certain kinds of childhood games may be the best way to increase a child’s ability to do well in school,” the Times reports. “Variations on games like Freeze Tag and Simon Says require relatively high levels of executive function, testing a child’s ability to pay attention, remember rules and exhibit self-control — qualities that also predict academic success.”

With Simon Says, for instance. asking children to do the opposite of what Simon says “helps a child develop mental flexibility and self-control,” the Times reports. Researchers at Oregon State University use a game they call Head-to-Toes to assess young children’s development. The game starts with preschoolers copying the teacher’s movement – touching either her head or her toes. Asking children to do the opposite requires more complex cognitive skills, such as attention, focus, memory, self-control and mental flexibility.

Oregon State researchers followed 430 children from preschool to age 25 and found that children’s ability at age 4 to pay attention and finish a task were the greatest predictors of their chances of graduating from college by 25. Another study cited by the Times found that young children who are better at games like Simon Says perform better in reading and math. Still another found that children who began the school year with low levels of self-control improved after playing games like Red Light Green Light, the Times reports.

“Focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success,” Ellen Galinsky, a child-development researcher and author of “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs,” tells the Times.