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Exercise Your Brain for Success

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
July 2008 Issue
June 7, 2008

Exercise Your Brain for Success

Crosswords, Lingo, Sudoku, and “Brain Age” games are among the most popular cartridges for the Nintendo DS handheld game system. Among students using the popular social Web site Facebook, versions of Scrabble and Boggle are the most popular games.

As a teacher, I am thrilled. Word games dominating a popular Web site? I definitely did not see this coming. There are places to share scores, discuss strategies, and exchange user-created puzzles.

Because I specialize in learning disabilities and special education, I’m especially excited to discover that students living with dyslexia and similar “decoding” challenges seem to enjoy these games.

I’m not sure what started the craze, but anything that gets students wondering what a five-letter synonym for “remove” is can’t be bad. (The answer was “purge.”)

When I was growing up, my mother always had a Dell Crossword or Find-a-Word book nearby. If she didn’t have a book handy, she’d write down a large word and start rearranging the letters. Now, a new generation has discovered these same puzzles in a new form.

Just as the game “Dance Dance Revolution” and the Nintendo Wii are getting people to move, now the game companies have realized there’s a market for exercising brains.

There are mixed research results on brain games, with some studies finding a noticeable but short-lived improvement on intelligence tests. I have to believe that these games are better for people of all ages than the typical “blood and gore” first-person mayhem we find in Grand Theft Auto or Quake.

Oddly enough, the studies that found the benefits of brain games did not last had the participants quit playing. In other words, if the volunteer stopped exercising, the skills faded. Trust me, any teacher will tell you that after summer students have forgotten all sorts of information and skills. You have to use your brain to keep it fit.

I cannot imagine someone who enjoys vocabulary or puzzle games quitting “cold turkey” to watch eight hours a day of television. Yes, players might grow tired of some games, but they can and will find new puzzles. The great thing about puzzle games is that you get addicted to the thrill of solving increasingly difficult puzzles.

After watching my students with Nintendo DS consoles, I decided to purchase my own. I now have a half-dozen brain games, which I find myself playing most evenings. My students definitely opened my eyes.

The computer and Nintendo crossword games I play offer thousands of puzzles. If I really want to stretch my vocabulary, I can select a thematic crossword puzzle—from astronomy to zoology. Like me, students end up wondering what new words will appear in a puzzle.

Anything that expands the vocabularies of my students is a great thing. Too often I have found students unable to appreciate words and phrases from classic literature because “no one speaks like that anymore.” Games make these rare and even odd words more fun than I ever could.

In a classroom, games end up dominated by one or two students, even at the college level—and yes, even college students enjoy a game when reviewing terminology. There will always be one or two well-read students, with vocabularies better than those of most Jeopardy champions. Competition can end up counterproductive.

Because my students seem to love old-fashioned word games, as long as they are on a computer screen, I decided it would be great to customize puzzles. The fantastic application Crossword Forge (http://www.solrobots.com/) lets teachers, or anyone, create computer-based and traditional crossword puzzles for Windows and OS X. You can even post the puzzles to Web pages. For variety, the program can create word search puzzles, too.

Crosswords and word searches are ideal for individual play. It’s one player against the puzzle. You can start and stop whenever you want; just like the Dell books, computers save your games for later. There’s very little pressure, but a great sense of accomplishment when you do complete a puzzle.

Students with learning disabilities can take breaks from puzzles. They can correct errors as many times as they want. With a crossword or word search, everyone can end up with a perfect score.

I never imagined computers would be teaching my students patience, but that seems to be the case. A young lady told me that she’s worked on a Nintendo Sudoku puzzle for several days. She kept at it until she solved the puzzle. “Every puzzle has a solution, so you can’t give up,” she explained. That’s a great attitude towards every problem.

Number games, like Sudoku or even the ubiquitous Mine Sweeper, teach players to look for patterns. Nothing is really hidden if you think about the puzzle long enough. With each game, you get a little better at recognizing the patterns. Your time improves and you feel successful. I can’t think of a better way to teach basic reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Of course, there is a place for competition.

Facebook’s Scrabble and Boggle games are extremely popular. Apparently, some games are “live” while others allow you to take turns without any time limits. When a student first told me about taking a turn every day, I mentioned “postal chess.” Chess players used to send moves via postcards to each other.

“You can play chess on Facebook or Yahoo,” the student responded, not quite grasping the concept.
I do own a copy of Scrabble for the computer, though I don’t play online. I can play Scrabble against the computer for an hour, easily. When the computer uses a strange word, I can ask for the definition without any penalty. Few human opponents are as understanding. Honestly, I often enjoy playing against the computer more than playing against people.

If I’m learning new words, I’m fairly confident that my students are, too. As their vocabularies and problem-solving skills increase, difficult reading will become less daunting. No, reading won’t become a game, but it will be another puzzle to solve. I’m betting that brain exercise can lead to lasting, and life-changing, results.

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