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Classroom Activities: In Praise of Old-School Board Games

Jordan Catapano

Although many of our favorite childhood memories might revolve around spending rainy days playing Monopoly or experiencing the gut-wrenching flip of a Candyland card, today’s technology overshadows yesterday’s classics for this new generation in terms of classroom activities. But before you subject those dusty board games to your next garage sale as washed out relics, think again—not only are board games loads of fun, they have properties that help boost children’s brain power, too.

Research on brain development has prominently pointed to the importance of executive function, which is the brain’s ability to problem solve, be creative, utilize working memory, and take prior knowledge and adapt it to new situations.

University of British Columbia researcher Adele Diamond reported that “executive functions—working memory and inhibitions—actually predict success better than IQ tests.” These higher functions of the brain are essential to develop foundationally in children, making their journey through school and beyond much more fruitful. The National Center for Learning Disabilities emphasizes that success, in 21st century terms, relies on a student’s increasing proficiency and range in regard to crucial executive function tasks.

There are a number of strategies and classroom activities parents, teachers, and students may employ to enhance their executive functioning. Despite their 20th century roots, these classic board games stand out as one of the better, easily accessible, and fun ways to develop children’s brain power.

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Classroom Activities: What’s Special about Board Games


This allows for imagination, creativity, and problem solving in ways that more structured, traditional classroom activities do not. These games let students’ minds roam in a productive way.

Follow the Rules

Board games represent a low-risk entry point to reinforce the importance of following the rules. These classics are rule-based by nature and require specific actions to achieve a set goal.

Be Adaptable

Board games are subject to chance and the actions of the other players, making it paramount for players to think on their feet. Engaged students must learn the rules, develop a strategy, prioritize resources, adapt to changes in situations, negotiate and collaborate, maximize opportunity and minimize risk, and achieve the goal faster than competitors.

It may sound like this analysis takes the innocent fun out of the board game, but these special traits have been an inherent part of them all along. This report published in Newsweek suggests that the brain is like a muscle, and board games are one of the best kinds of exercise for it!

The 5 Best Classic Games and Classroom Activities for Executive Functions


This classic real estate game tops the list, as it possesses all the main executive function features. As players collect properties, they must make decisions based on dice rolls and chance cards. They must decide how to spend their money and how to avoid giving it to other players. They also must interact by negotiating and trading.


This game of world domination has a relatively simple set of rules: Roll the dice to attack or defend against other players. If you win the dice roll, you take over a territory. But playing this game compels players to organize a complex range of priorities, from how to get more armies to when to buckle down in defense. The game is won when long-term strategy and quick-thinking audibles combine effectively. You can also adapt this game for younger players.


At the core, this game not only keeps your vocabulary sharp but also teaches children new words. But Scrabble also requires strategies, defenses, counters, and organization in order to be successful. You can add variations with Banagrams, Scrabble Slam, Hangman, and your own vocab-development rules!


This murder mystery game, despite its simple gameplay, requires extraordinarily complex brain functions to win. Players roll dice and move around a board, making accusations and collecting clues. The truth about this game, though, is that very little has to do with the board itself. Everything has to do with the cards players hold, and how deductive and inductive reasoning can lead a player to the correct conclusion.

Chinese Checkers

Chess and checkers are classics that have been extensively researched. But one often-overlooked board game option is Chinese Checkers. It is essentially a strategic race across a board, but instead of playing against one competitor, players may face up to five at once. This means they’ll have to take up to sixty game pieces into consideration as they plan their next move!

No matter the students’ age, playing these classic games is a great compliment to organized school lessons for helping develop crucial executive brain functions. So open up that game closet and dust off these old favorites—they’re destined to be great classroom activities and tools for years to come (provided you still have all the pieces).

Enrich your Back to School curriculum with’s Ultimate 5-Week Prep Guide! Each week, you’ll get tips, tricks, and ideas designed to help you be a more effective educator! 

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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