Any time we stretch our brains and attempt something new, we’re helping to create and strengthen neural pathways. Especially when tackling problems which use multiple parts of our brain and require thinking in different ways. These activities can sharpen our mind and help to keep it that way – a little like a fitness regime.

Just as we need regular and varied exercise to stay in optimum physical health, the same approach can be applied to ‘exercising’ our brains. Brain games such as sudoku and crossword puzzles, have been found to protect the brain from decline. For example through delaying and reducing the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Setting aside time for puzzles within class schedules and at home is beneficial for the following reasons. They can:

  • Make school subjects more enjoyable
  • Foster familiarity and fluency in terminology and concepts
  • Develop many transferable skills such as initiative, logical thinking, problem-solving and an ability to cope with failure
  • Improve spatial skills and awareness

Broadly speaking, there are many puzzles which can aid the development of skills such as grouping and sorting, ordering numbers and visuospatial abilities such as coordinating and matching shapes in early years. But in this post, we are focusing on brain games aimed at key stage two and above.

Which puzzles are good for numeracy?

Sudoku

Playing Sudoku actually exercises your brain extensively. Here are ways that tackling sudoku puzzles can benefit cognitive development:

  • Improved memory and logic. We use our memory to memorise the numbers, while we use logic to figure out the next blank.
  • Efficiency. Playing udoku helps to increase your sense of time. You will learn how to make a decision and take an action with less hesitation. By playing Sudoku more often, you can solve the puzzle faster and eventually advance to a harder level.
  • Increased concentration power. Sudoku requires players to think strategically and solve problems creatively. If you stop playing in the middle of the game, you have to start the whole thinking process again if you re-visit the puzzle. This helps you to develop your concentration power and re-focusing skills.
  • Positive reinforcement and enjoyment of learning. When solving puzzles, our brain produces dopamine that is essential for learning. Completing a Sudoku puzzle provides a sense of accomplishment when we can solve one, especially when tackling a particularly difficult level.
  • Stimulates your mind. It keeps us practising our logical thinking process when solving a puzzle, and eventually improves our number skills.
  • Reduced chances of developing Alzheimer’s. Keeping our brains active actually makes our brains more elastic and adaptable.

Other similar puzzles include: Hanjie, Kakuro. Futoshiki, Calcudoku, Hitori, Nurikabe, Slitherlink, all of which can be found in puzzle books and mobile applications.

Which puzzles are good for literacy?

Crosswords

If you have seen the film The Imitation Game based on Alan Turing, you may have noticed how Turing used difficult crossword puzzles in a newspaper to test job applicants. But just how accurate are crosswords as indicators of intelligence?

There is in fact little evidence that crosswords improve overall cognition or memory but they can improve our ability to find words (also known as fluency). This type of process occurs in the speech and language centres of the brain. So, Turing was right to use crosswords to test fluency but perhaps not for overall intelligence.

Plenty of researchers have discovered the positive effects that crossword puzzles can have on one’s brain if played regularly. They can increase our vocabulary, teach us to focus our minds on more relaxing tasks than ‘real life’ problems and they can test our memories. For example, setting a time limit to see how fast you can do your crossword is a good idea.

The benefits on your brain are enhanced when crosswords are tackled in groups. Working in a group will improve the speed of thinking and talking and it can also strengthen social bonds. When undertaken as a group exercise, crosswords encourage collaborative cruciverbalism which triggers bonding when parts of the puzzle are solved.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a daily dose of crossword puzzles is a significant way to keep the brain active and sharp, especially as you grow older. But evidence that crosswords alleviate symptoms and risk of dementia is less conclusive than that for Sudoku puzzles. But amongst those who believe that they can help, is Ann Lukits. She wrote “Puzzles Boost Verbal Skills, Cut Dementia Risk” for the Wall Street Journal and believes that solving crosswords on a regular basis can “improve memory and brain function in older adults,” as well as “improve mental functions in patients with brain damage or early dementia.”  

Other examples include Wordsearch and Arrowwords. Both of which can be completed via puzzle books or mobile apps.

Riddles

When creating or interpreting riddles, our brains exercise more abstract mental processes than memory and recall. Solving a riddle requires out of the box thinking, applying meaning to information in a nonconventional way. In order to crack a riddle you will need to think, imagine, recite and match pieces of information which do not usually match.

Riddles can trigger our brain to a number of neural connections with the intention to find a solution for the question thrown at us.

Riddles also develop interpersonal skills in children by encouraging them to interact and brainstorm with one another in order to solve the riddle. They can also create a chance to entertain one another by particular imaginative ideas.

We’ve discussed previously the benefits of incorporating cooking into different subjects on the school curriculum. In a similar way, finding puzzles, brain games and riddles which include information from the normal curriculum is a great way to encourage active participation in class and ensuring pupils are stimulated by new lesson material and challenges.

Should I encourage my child to complete puzzles at home? If nothing else, the above puzzles offer a fun way to overcome boredom – and time away from screens – that is beneficial to brain development. If your child is restless and bored, a crossword puzzle could help them to relax, while keeping their mind engaged.