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Exam revision can be child's play for older kids

While revision is vital for exam preparation, it shouldn't be all hard graft for teenagers. Lisa Salmon looks at how playing games could help study

Many of the UK's teenagers are gearing up for important exams and revision is on the horizon - if it hasn't already started.

It's hard for parents to keep teens focused on studying, or to throw in any new ideas to make it either more efficient or at least more bearable.

But considering that last year there was a 20% rise in the number of teenagers contacting ChildLine about exam stress, with one of their main worries the fear of disappointing their parents, it could be time for mums and dads to throw something new into the daunting revision equation.

Experts suggest that one unusual study element could be playing games.

Some psychologists believe parents can help teens focus more and improve their memory while feeling less pressured by getting them to play a few traditional games and puzzles during study periods - in moderation, of course.

And while playing games can help students relax, they have a practical, skill-linked element too, as it's thought board games can help set young people up with valuable life skills including learning to lose and win, improving memory and organisational and strategic thinking, and boosting social skills.

In some games, for example, players have to learn that if a strategy's not working, they need to change direction - a valuable tactic for academic work, as well as life in general.

Educational psychologist Dr Kairen Cullen explains: "Our brains thrive on variety and stimulation and sitting for hours in front of written text can certainly dull the appetite for learning, so the addition of traditional and computer-based games, social interaction and physical activity is to be encouraged." Games such as Monopoly, Scrabble, bingo and chess can provide a quality cognitive workout while being a good, socially interactive way to unwind.

In addition, solo mindbenders such as sudoku and cryptic crosswords can improve cognitive dexterity while constructively distracting less outgoing teens from stress without forcing them to join in socially.

Outdoor games - weather permitting - can help teenagers' brains function and improve their mood. Studies have shown that exercise not only aids memory (possibly by boosting blood flow to the brain), but may even improve results if done just before an exam. Plus, exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain's release of the hormone serotonin, which is associated with improved mood, calmness and focus.

Not all games and puzzles are equally helpful, though - and the choice depends on which skills you want to improve.

Here's a guide to which games will help with different cognitive abilities.

Internet psychologist Graham Jones says any games that enhance visualisation will help memory. "One of the best ways of trying to remember facts is to visualise them," he explains, "and a classic technique is to place the facts in picture form on a familiar journey." Because you easily remember the journey - such as the trip from home to school - you'll then see the facts pop out as you mentally travel along the route. "So a game that improves visual thinking would be good," he says, pointing out that video games are an example of this type of game. "They improve visualisation and so would help students more easily use the journey technique."

Card games such as poker and Fish are great for flexing memory muscles, and bingo, especially the more complex 75-ball version, can increase recall and may also improve concentration and mood. Solo activities, which can challenge your memory, include Sudoku and solitaire. Many exams require a high degree of mental agility to think through scenarios and solve complex problems. Chess is good for considering alternative courses of action and the risks, and poker can also help. Even Monopoly may improve your powers of logical reasoning and decision-making.

Longer strategic games are a great choice to improve attention span. Chess is recognised as one of the best brain-training games, and studies show it's effective at increasing focus and concentration due to its complex strategic nature. However, it may be a challenge to persuade young people to tackle chess, as it's not the trendiest of games. More immediately engaging games and puzzles which may improve focus include Risk, or one of the new breed of board games such as Carcassonne or Puerto Rico.

And lastly, whether indoors or out, encourage regular study breaks, advises Jones.

"Another predictor of exam success is how well students break up studying into short periods," he says. "Those who do 20 minutes, then do something else for 20 minutes and then do another 20 minutes of study, tend to do the best."

Cullen agrees students need to chunk, pace and vary revision, and points out that humanist psychology asserts people need to experience, and are motivated by, achievement, exercising choice and feeling a sense of belonging.

"Successful revision should include opportunities for all of these," she says, "so when supporting a young person's revision, the starting point should be to ask them what helps them feel better when they're working hard, choose activities based on what they tell you and factor this into their plan."

  • For more on how games can boost brainpower, visit

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