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8 Genius Brain Boosters You Can Do With Your Kids

Updated: Dec. 02, 2022

Simple brain exercises to do with your kids that help you stay sharp, get smarter and perform better at work and school.

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Why brain health is a family matter

At any age, you can work toward a better, more efficient brain. “Think of the brain as a muscle—everyone knows working out will make your muscles bigger and stronger, but that if you stop exercising, the muscles shrink and become weaker,” says Daniel Amen, PhD, renowned brain expert, double-board-certified psychiatrist, physician, and author of Time for Bed Sleepyhead. That’s why it’s so important to start exercising the brain early. “Children need to lay the foundations for brain function and literally build these ‘roads’ from scratch,” says Jeffrey M. Egler, MD, board-certified family practice physician with a specialty training in preventive, functional medicine. “This requires much repetition and practice just to develop new skills and even more to solidly root them.” That means it’s your job, as Mom and Dad, to lay fresh tracks for your child so he or she can continue to adapt and stay functional and competitive in a quickly changing world. Here are doc-recommended ways to help little ones (and not so little ones) develop strong, healthy brains.

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Make up a sort-of real story together

Most young children love to recreate the daily activities they see their parents and other adults do in their play—and it’s not only fun, it’s beneficial. “Creative activities, new experiences, and building strong social networks are ways to have a positive impact on brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize and change itself as it absorbs new information,” says Kristin M. Mascotti, MD, quality medical officer at Miller’s Children’s and Women’s Hospital, in Long Beach, California. Creating new, imaginary environments builds brain development. Try role play, such as imitating a day at school where the child becomes the teacher and the adult becomes student. The “teacher” could assign and grade homework while the class may take a trip to the lunchroom or go on a field trip. The “teacher” may have to learn to deal with any unruly students! “These types of activities allow the child to adapt to new surroundings, interact in alternative ways, and build new cognitive pathways,” she says. Your brain loves these daily healthy habits.

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iStock/Christopher Futcher

Read to your children—even when they’re infants

Hearing new words and seeing colors and images help children use different parts of their brain, says Jacqueline Romanies, DC, pediatric and family chiropractor. “This allows for sensory pathway development which, in turn, helps develop cognition, or the ability to acquire knowledge and understand through thought, experience, and the senses.” Think of how many times a baby hears the words “ma-ma” and “da-da” before saying those words. Reading to a child stimulates and reinforces their sense of the world around them—which in the very beginning is mostly the world in their home. Here are early reading habits that make children love books.

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Sort blocks by color or shape together

It’s relaxing when both parents and kids can put down the technological toys and actually engage with imagination, recall and thinking. “Children have a natural desire to try and make sense of the world around them—one that seems largely out of their control,” says Dian Griesel, PhD, serial entrepreneur and long-recognized business and health spokesperson. “That’s why sorting is so appealing to them and can really enhance their ability to understand their environment.” You can start simple, by sorting blocks by color or shape, and progress to removing silverware from the sink or dishwasher, sorting and putting them into proper drawers and slots (just keep the knives away!). Another great sorting activity is laundry. See if you don’t feel more relaxed when you watch your child sort out whose underwear is whose!

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iStock/Susan Chiang

Leave a trail of flashcards at your child’s eye level

Once little ones are old enough to walk around without help, take alphabet, animal or number flashcards and place them around the house with removable tape. “This will help develop your child’s motor skills, as he finds himself fascinated by chasing after the cards you’ve left out for him, and stimulate the sensory and cognitive areas of the brain,” says Dr. Romanies. A great way to make this game even more beneficial is to ask your child to show you where a particular flashcard is located. “This will stimulate his memory and motor areas of the brain and make it feel like a game.” Just make sure to switch the images every few days to keep the game interesting! Here are other habits of people with impressive memory.

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Play checkers! Or any board game

Puzzles, board games (yes even the ones from your childhood), and crossword puzzles and such, can engage and stimulate a child’s brain in ways that can benefit their development for years to come. “Checkers and chess are both excellent brain-boosting activities because they involve memorization of which pieces can move in which directions and when those moves can be executed,” says Dr. Griesel. “By age five, any child can grasp the concept of checkers with some notes, and some might be able to understand the moves related to kings, queens, knights, rooks and pawns.” Both games help concentration immensely, as well as memorization. Start with having them simply learn how to set up a checkers or chess board and explain the directions. Play some sample games with the initial goal being memorizing moves for each piece versus winning. Verbalize why a move makes sense—or not. Help your young opponent move—demonstrating verbally and visually, and if you don’t remember how to play, Chess for Kids by International Master Michael Basman ($6, amazon.com) is a great picture-full explanation of the game for kids of all ages.

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iStock/Todor Tsvetkov

Prepare and/or cook a meal together

Sure, it might make a bigger mess and take longer for you to actually get dinner on the table, but it’s a fun and effective way to boost your little one’s brain. “Sometimes as simple as buying a box of cake mix and making cupcakes involves reading, understanding and following directions,” says Dr. Griesel. Your child will learn how to select appropriate-size bowls, turn on the oven, properly measuring out ingredients, evenly distribute batter to fill 18-24 cupcakes, keep an eye on the time, as well as experience the reward of enjoying a delicious cupcake at the tail end. “A fun progression on cupcakes is chocolate chip cookies from scratch—done by following the recipe on the back of any package of chips,” says Dr. Griesel. “ Of course this can be done with making a salad or any other aspect of a meal, as well.” The idea is to learn to read, follow the directions, pay attention to cook time, prepare portions…and enjoy!

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iStock/Jani Bryson

Have a vocabulary word of the day

Once your child’s old enough to take an English class, she will likely have weekly vocabulary tests to challenge her knowledge—but why not get an early start? “At any age, vocabulary building is an asset,” says Dr. Griesel. “Even a two-year-old can learn that ‘remarkable’ is more descriptive than ‘good.’” They key to building brain power from having a ‘word of the day’ is encouraging their recall and complementing their use in appropriate ways. Need some inspiration? Just search “word of the day” online and you’ll find all kinds of sites and free apps to help both you and your child boost recall and enhance memory.

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Encourage them to adopt a sport or hobby (and to stick to it!)

Whether it’s learning to kick a soccer ball, how to play the guitar or how to dance the salsa, show your child the importance of a hobby at an early age. “Sports, specifically, are brain boosters for multiple reasons, namely because physical activity boosts oxygen and muscle memory,” says Dr. Griesel. “Whether it’s an individual sport or one that involves teammates, patience, coordination and determination are developed.” When they’re young, it’s perfectly fine to introduce them to sports or hobbies you might enjoy yourself, but as they get older and develop an interest for one over the other, encourage them to stick with that they like best, so they’ll actually enjoy it and put the time in to practice. Here’s more on the surprising ways exercise boosts your brainpower.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest