If you’re looking for ideas to help develop working memory and executive functioning skills at home, in the classroom, and/or as part of regular occupational therapy, this collection of strategies and working memory games for kids is a great place to start. Designed to develop a child’s short-term memory, planning, and organization skills, these suggestions and activities help set children with developmental delays and learning disabilities up for long-term academic success.
What is Working Memory?
Working memory is often referred to our brain’s ‘Post-It Note’ as it helps us remember and process information simultaneously. We use our working memory to keep track of information until we need to use it. It helps us remember and perform multistep instructions, and plays a huge role in our ability to focus and concentrate on tasks.
Unlike our long-term memory, which can hold unlimited amounts of information, our working memory can only hold so much before it becomes overloaded. This explains why we sometimes forget to pick up milk at the grocery store or fail to remember to stop at the dry-cleaner on the way home from work. Such bouts of forgetfulness are normal and something many people experience at some point, and typically isn’t something to be worried about.
With that said, kids with certain learning disabilities like executive function disorder or ADHD have a much smaller working memory, making it more difficult for them to remember and process information simultaneously. These children may have difficulty with:
…starting, prioritizing, and/or completing tasks
…self-regulation and self-control
…focusing on a task and following it through to completion
…completing math problems mentally
…reading and reading retention
These children struggle with things that are automatic for other children, and appear to be lazy, unfocused, defiant, or disobedient,
7 Tips to Boost Your Child’s Working Memory
1) Be clear and concise when giving directions. Make sure you have your child’s full attention when giving directions. Remove distractions, get down to their level, and look them in the eye when speaking. Remember to keep directions short and sweet, and to break them down into manageable tasks that won’t cause feelings of overwhelm. By keeping your requests as specific as possible and limiting the number of things you’re asking a child to do at once, you’re setting him or her up for success.
2) Ask your child to repeat directions back to you. After providing directions, ask your child to repeat what you’ve said back to you to ensure they heard you correctly. This extra step is a great way to improve retention, and allows you to fill in any gaps if your child forgot one or more of the things you said.
3) Teach visualization. Teaching your child to create a mental picture of the things you ask him or her to do is a great way to improve working memory. You may need to take it a step further at first and have your child draw his or her mental picture for you, but the more you practice, the better able your child will be at visualizing the things asked of him or her.
4) Break tasks down. Take the time to write out what needs to be done (and when) so your child can visually see what’s expected of him or her, and then work together to ensure each step is completed along the way. This will require more upfront help on your part, but your child will eventually learn how to break large tasks and assignments into bite-sized pieces that are less overwhelming.
5) Teach and supervise organization efforts. If your child struggles with organization due to poor working memory, take the time to teach him or her effective organization strategies, and regularly supervise these efforts to ensure they are maintained. This will help keep your child accountable and on track throughout the school year, and set him or her up for long-term academic success.
6) Encourage note taking. Teaching your child to write down homework assignments, create ‘to do’ lists, and take notes while working on school assignments can have a huge impact on improving his or her working memory. This will require lots of prompts and reminders on your part, but over time your child will learn to use these strategies to stay organized and on task.
7) Use praise. Children who struggle to focus and pay attention often receive a lot of negative feedback throughout the day. Teachers and parents spend a lot of time telling these kids about all of the things they’re doing wrong, and while this isn’t always done deliberately, it can have a huge impact on a child’s feelings of self-worth. Offer praise wherever possible, and make it a point to highlight one (or more) things these children do RIGHT each day. Remember that children ultimately want to please their parents and teachers in everything they do, and when you take the time to recognize their efforts – even when they don’t turn out the way they had hoped – it can have such a positive impact on their self-esteem.
11 Super Fun Memory Games and Activities for Kids
Distraction. This working memory game is equal parts hilarious and educational, and can be enjoyed in the classroom or as a family. Players take turns drawing number cards and must remember the growing sequence of numbers until a player pulls a ‘distraction card’. This person must then answer a silly question before reciting the sequence of numbers in the exact order they were drawn. It’s so much fun!
How Many Differences Can You Find? Have you ever completed one of those activities at the back of magazines where 2 seemingly identical photos are presented, and you have to identify what the subtle differences between the 2 are? I always love doing these with my daughter when we’re traveling, and you can buy complete books of these brain puzzles on Amazon! This one is good for younger kids, while this one is better suited to older kids and adults.
Scrabble. Scrabble is one of my favorite working memory games, and it’s great for kids who struggle with planning and organization. As the game progresses, they must strategize and anticipate how they can build their own words off of those already played by others. This is also a great game for kids who struggle with spelling and/or vocabulary!
Memory. Also known as ‘Concentration’, there are many versions of the classic game Memory available for purchase to help develop a child’s focus, concentration, and working memory skills. The idea is pretty easy and can be enjoyed with 2 or more players. Simply lie all of the tiles from the game facing downwards, and then take turns turning over 2 tiles at a time until you find a match. Children naturally build their working memory as they try to remember where specific cards are. We love our Despicable Me Memory Game, and I highly recommend Melissa & Doug’s Flip to Win Travel Memory Game as it can be played independently (or as a family) for on-the-go fun.
Shopping List. This game is sort of a twist on the classic memory and concentration games included above in that you’re not trying to get a match per se – you’re trying to find all the items on your grocery shopping list instead. And as other players turn your items over, you have to remember where they are so you can find them when it’s your turn, making it another one of my favorite working memory games for kids!
What’s Missing? This was actually one of my mom’s favorite birthday party games to organize when I was a little girl as it was so easy to setup and kept my friends and me engaged and entertained for ages. To play, put a collection of items on a small tray and spend time reviewing the items with your child. Recite them, touch them, talk about them, etc. Next, take the tray into another room and remove one or more items from the tray before returning to your child. Finally, ask him or her to review the new collection and determine which items(s) are missing. You will obviously want to start small with a few items on the tray and only removing one item, but over time you can make this more and more complex.
Remember 10 With Explorer Ben. This is a really fun working memory activity book that helps kids learn how to remember things through various memory games. Each spread of the book has 10 things that Ben must remember, as well as a tip to help the child remember the items for Ben. The following spread will test the child’s memory as 1-6 items will be missing. This book is a fun independent activity to help kids improve their working memory at home, in the classroom, or while on the go.
Card Games. If your child likes to play cards, there are tons of great working memory games you can try, like Crazy Eights, Go Fish, and Old Maid. Not only do kids have to remember which cards they are holding while playing these working memory games, but they also have to remember what cards their opponent is holding, too. Hoyle Kid’s Fun Pack is a great purchase to consider as it offers 6 fun games for a reasonable price.
[Electronic] Simon Says. If your child likes playing electronic games and you’re looking for tablet-free working memory games for kids, this is a great one to consider. To beat Simon in this game, players have to remember a pattern of colors and repeat it back to Simon in the correct order by pressing the colored buttons on the playset. The longer the child plays, the more complicated the patterns become!
LEGO Building Challenge. I actually played this during a corporate retreat when I was in my 20s, lol, but it definitely belongs on a list of working memory games for kids! The idea is pretty simple, but the activity itself is surprisingly challenging. You’ll need at least 3 players, and this works well as a family or classroom game. To play, create a simple(ish) structure using LEGO pieces and provide each set of 2 players with a bag filled with each of the LEGO pieces used to create the structure. The structure is placed somewhere out of sight (i.e. in another room), and one person on the team (the person who struggles with working memory) is tasked with walking out to view the structure and reporting back to his or her partner with verbal instructions on how to replicate it. He or she cannot use his or her hands at any time. This game is all about memory and communication and can be both fun and frustrating!
Executive Functioning Task Cards. If you’re looking for education-based activities you can use with your students and/or children, Teachers Pay Teachers offers a whole range of excellent ideas you can buy for a minimal fee and then print off, laminate, and use over and over again. I recently found this collection of executive functioning task cards, and I highly recommend it. It includes over 160 task cards and covers things like planning, time management, working memory, self-control, organization, attention, and flexibility. You can use these to create group activities in the classroom, as a topic of conversation around the dinner table, or as journal prompts to help kids who struggle with one or more executive functioning skills.
I hope this collection of strategies and working memory games for kids inspires you to find fun and effective ways to develop your child’s short-term memory, planning, and organization skills. Remember to be patient, to offer praise and positive reinforcement, and to keep it simple and fun!