I love playing memory cards with my three-year old daughter, if nothing more, just to see the look of concentration on her face as she tries to pick the right card, and the ensuing delight when she gets it right. I'd like to believe playing these sorts of thinking games is doing something more than providing fun for her -- could they somehow make her smarter?
This Berkeley study (Mackey, Hill, Stone & Bunge, 2011) certainly points in that direction. In fact, it shows that playing a particular type of game may train a specific cognitive skill. Children aged 7 to 9 from low socio-economic backgrounds participated in a study where they played commercially available games (a mixture of computerized and non-computerized) for an hour, twice a week, for 8 weeks. One group played games that emphasized reasoning and planning; the other played games that stressed speed training. The result? Children in the reasoning group improved their IQ an average of 10 points; children in the speed group improved on cognitive speed tasks, but not on intelligence tests. "Counter to widespread belief, these results indicate that both fluid reasoning and processing speed are modifiable by training."
Your next question, if I had to guess, would be: which games did they play? Here's the list:
Reasoning games: Set, Qwirkle, Rush Hour, Tangoes, Chocolate Fix, Azada, Big Brain Academy (Nintendo DS), Professor Brainium's Games (Nintendo DS), Picross (Nintendo DS), Neves, Pipe Mania Speed of processing games: Spoons, Pictureka, Blink, Speed, Perfection, Feeding Frenzy, Super Cow, Bricks of Atlantis, Super Monkey Ball, Nervous Brickdown (Nintendo DS), Mario Kart (Nintendo DS), Ratatouille (Nintendo DS)
It's great when fun and learning go together. For more details on what's going on mechanistically in the brain to support this conclusion, Professor Silvia Bunge has a fascinating public lecture on "How Exercising the Mind Can Change the Brain". I don't expect that the gains would be permanent (i.e., you need to keep playing!), but it's fascinating to learn that even a short-term intervention can make a difference. In her lecture, Professor Bunge explains why reasoning skills in particular are important: reasoning is a scaffold for the acquisition of knowledge and skills (Catell, 1987). In other words, it's an important building block for learning. In her follow-on work, she is researching how working memory and relational reasoning training can affect mathematical abilities.
I can't wait to hear the results! In the meantime, anyone know of a good reasoning game for the 3-5 age segment?