The kids rush into the Palmerston Avenue School library in Toronto after school. “Are the T-shirts in?” they ask. A box of red, blue, orange and purple shirts with white mice on them, one thinking about pie and one thinking about pi, answers their question. It’s photo day at school, and the Thinking Skills Club gets its moment beside soccer, chess and Ultimate Frisbee.
The Thinking Skills Club is a computer game club in which the games actually improve cognitive skills like executive function, working memory and sustained attention. But these are no computer geeks, they’re kids who just want to have fun. “The games on the website are really fun,” says Richard, a grade six student. “It’s a great way to end the week,” chimes in his classmate, Sasha.
Can computer games really help cognitive development? In a 2011 experiment by Susanne Jaeggi with Michigan grade school and middle school students, the answer was an emphatic yes for both boys and girls, regardless of demographic background. The game they used was a challenging working memory task known as n-Back, in which the player must recall an image that was seen two or more steps back in a series. Not that everyone improved; exit interviews showed that those who found the game too challenging were prone to give up in frustration, while those who found it too easy probably already had the target skills. The important take away, say the authors, is that such games should be “neither too easy nor too difficult” for best results. They conclude that “Future research should not investigate whether cognitive training works, but what training conditions result in the best transfer effects.”
Studies like this one are the reason club founder Mitch Moldofsky started the Thinking Skills Club at his sons’ school a few years ago, along with the website that supports it. “Many games that are developed as brain training are too focused on science and not enough on enjoyment,” he opines. “That’s why I’ve combed ordinary gaming sites for games that are fun first and cognitively enriching second. It’s the best of both worlds.”
The kids sporting their cool new T’s and awesome poses would seem to agree.