Hopscotch, jump rope, dodgeball ... did you know that playing these games as a kid actually made you smarter? Exercise, particularly the kind that challenges your body to move differently or learn new tasks, helps grow neurons and increase the nerve pathways in your brain.
In fact, according to the Franklin Institute and a 2008 study published in Developmental Neurorehabilitation, muscles activate brain cells and strengthen them. Watching your child as she tries to learn to hop on one foot or use a non-dominant hand is actually firing up her brain cells. Not only are playground games for kids a fun way to teach, they're also a great opportunity to keep your mind sharp. Adults who learn new tasks and activities help ward off age-related diseases like Alzheimer's.
So bust out the chalk, round up some kids, and let the games begin!
- Hopped-Up Hopscotch. This seemingly antiquated diversion's a fantastic way to forge some neural pathways in the brain, especially if you add different rules to spice up play. Start with chalk and a flat sidewalk or driveway. If it's your kid's first time, draw the traditional two-one-two square configuration, and show him how to hop with two feet to one foot and back to two feet again. Once this skill's mastered, change the rules and the board.
- On one square, alternate between hopping on the left and right foot.
- Draw the hopscotch board in new ways, making curved areas or large gaps to jump.
- Color "silly squares" on the board, where the player standing on it has to recite a tongue twister or sing a silly song.
- The Alphabet Mash-Up Challenge. Grab the sidewalk chalk and head to the driveway for the ultimate in alphabet competitions. This game taps into both sides of the brain by writing with both dominant and non-dominant hands. Instead of just reciting the ABCs from A to Z, challenge yourself and your child to write the alphabet using your non-dominant hands. First, write from right to left, then switch it up. For challenging gameplay, write a letter the correct way with the dominant hand, and make its mirror image with the non-dominant hand. This forces your visual and spatial skills to kick in, and may leave you laughing at the results.
- Piggy Pick-up Sticks. Switch up the classic pick-up sticks game by doing the picking up with your toes! Guaranteed to get little ones giggling, piggy pick-up sticks challenges your kid's dexterity, making her use her feet and toes in a new way. If little toes struggle to grasp thin sticks, use straws or actual sticks (sans sharp edges) from the yard. Use markers to color-code the straws or sticks, and play the game by its usual rules—gathering all the sticks of one color without disturbing the entire pile. Be sure to use both feet to activate both sides of the brain.
- Crazy Jacks. This version of jacks is a perfect rainy day alternative to a movie. An excellent way to improve hand-eye coordination and test mental acuity, jacks reaches new heights with a crazy bouncing ball. Simply add a couple of rubber bands to your standard jacks ball, and voilà—bounce trajectories are now completely unpredictable! Your budding brainiac will need to keep her eye on the ball to scoop up the jacks and make the catch. Alternating right and left hand catches ramps up the risk factor, and challenges brains young and old to improve mind-body communication.
- Bouncing Boxball. Similar to table tennis, boxball is played using two sidewalk squares, or two chalk squares drawn on pavement. Two players play at a time using a ball and everyone's hands instead of paddles. Each player stands behind a square, and can't step into it. If she does, she loses a point. The goal is to slap the ball into your opponent's square without him being able to slap it back. Just like in table tennis, missing the ball or failing to return it results in losing a point to the opponent. If your kids are older, mix things up with ping-pong paddles or larger squares. Set up tournaments and invite neighbor's kids over to take part. You can even use the crazy bounce ball to challenge even the fiercest athletes.
- Tap-Out Tag. Playing any form of tag on the playground, from TV to Freeze, is practically a childhood tradition. Tap-out Tag tests kids' memory and motor skills while providing an outlet for exuberant energy. To play, you'll need nine plastic lids and three different colored markers. Divide up the lids evenly into three piles. Using each of the markers, make an X on the lids so that each group of lids has an X of every color. Create a few areas of the yard that will act as "bases," and place one group of lids in each of these areas. The person who's "it" will pick a color pattern, such as red-green-red-blue. In order to avoid being tagged, a runner has to make it to base and tap out this color pattern using feet or hands. If she does it before being tagged, she continues playing as a runner. If not, she is now "it" and can make up her own color pattern.
The next time you're looking for exercise and a brain boost, try out some of these playground games. For kids, there's no better way to learn then to have fun doing it!