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Fun and (Brain) Games

Simple games, played intentionally, can make for powerful moments of social-emotional learning
Illustration of a school on the left and a house on the right, with yellow emoticons in the middle

We know that social-emotional learning (SEL) works best when it’s happening across the school day and encouraged in every setting. New work is showing the effectiveness of one pathway for that schoolwide learning: the common games, songs, and transition activities that are likely already part of an elementary school teacher’s repertoire. With the right kind of framing, these simple games can become powerful tools for teaching core social-emotional skills that improve children’s academic performance and behavior and lead to success throughout the school day. And they don’t require a formal (or costly) curriculum.

Introducing Brain Games

Developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones and her team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are building a new approach to SEL that focuses specifically on simple strategies that can be adapted to many settings.

One example is Brain Games — a set of quick, fun activities that build core executive function and self regulation skills. These games, developed with collaborators at HopeLab, can be played at any time during the school day: transitions, downtime, or as a reward for good behavior.

Brain Games build three main competencies, which the team calls “brain powers”: focus, remember, and stop and think. To maximize learning during play, teachers can be intentional and explicit about the SEL skills students are building. They can talk to students about the brain power needed to play each game, and about strategies for using that power. After the game, they can talk about what happened, “building metacognition and a shared vocabulary around the skills they are learning,” Jones says. And through a set of debrief questions, “teachers and students can think together about how to use these skills at other times of day, connecting ‘brain powers’ to work ethic in the classroom, teamwork and relationships, and successful behavior in school and beyond.”

Jones and her team have conducted a pilot study of Brain Games in three low-income elementary schools in South Carolina. The findings revealed improvements in teacher reports of children’s self-regulation and executive function, as well as improved observer ratings of classroom regulation and teacher practices. Additional study is ongoing; to learn more about the games, contact Jones’s research lab, and read on.

Game Time, Learning Time

Here are three examples of how common games and activities can become learning opportunities.

I Spy

The teacher says, “I spy with my little eyes something that is ____” (choose a color or shape to describe an object in the room). Students look and point at what they think the object is. This process — deliberately orienting and shifting attention — is known as focus power.

  • Before playing, ask students to put on their “focus binoculars” to help them see clearly. You can ask this figuratively, or ask students literally to bring their hands up like binoculars around their eyes.
  • Explain that using your “focus power” means using not just your eyes to see clearly, but also your ears to hear clearly and your brain to tune out distractions.
  • After playing, talk to students about times when they felt distracted or frustrated during the game. Ask for suggestions on how they re-centered their attention.
  • Discuss with students when else it’s important during school to use their focus power.

The Name Game

Students stand in a circle. One by one, each student says his or her name and does a motion along with it. The rest of the class then repeats the name with the motion as a group, ultimately trying to remember and repeat all names and motions. The researchers refer to these skills mentally keeping track and updating information — as remember power.

  • Before playing, talk about why it’s so important to remember things during the school day.
  • Explain that you need to use your “remember power” for everything: tying your shoes, working on a math problem, or knowing how to get to your friend’s house.
  • After playing, ask students what made the game hard or easy for them.
  • Discuss tips and tricks to remember important information and routines, and talk about times during the day when it’s especially important to use your remember power.

Simon Says

Students follow the teacher’s directions and movements, but only when the teacher says “Simon says” first. The skills involved here — inhibiting an automatic impulse, or replacing the impulse with some other action — are called stop and think power.

  • Before playing, explain to students how our brains tell our bodies when and how to move.
  • Talk about “stop and think power,” and all the times during the day — playing basketball, waiting in line, or writing a story — when students need to stop and think before acting.
  • After playing, ask students what they did to keep themselves from moving during the game. Ask what it felt like when they were trying not to move.
  • Offer suggestions for ways to stop and think throughout the school day, such as taking deep breaths or counting quietly.

Additional Resources


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