After School Enrichment Clubs and Camps with
Hex & Company
- Game Play and Neurodevelopment
Kids love playing games. But what if you could design an educational program around them? That’s the impetus behind After School Enrichment from Hex & Company- now offering programs at 2871 Broadway, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as well as at 1462 First Avenue, on the Upper East Side, a natural extension of those started by Dr. Jon Freeman at The Brooklyn Strategist in Carroll Gardens. Below, we discuss in greater detail the various programs, the neuro-developmental basis behind them, the skills your child will learn, and our goals with each. If you’re interested in having your child join us, simply click here for information on registration (and scheduling details). For summer camp details, click here!
Several years ago, Dr. Freeman wondered if other kids reacted the same way as his daughter when engaged in face-to-face interaction over board and card games, if other parents shared the same concerns regarding digital media and, crucially, if there would be community-wide interest in a program geared towards playing board games together.
As it turns out, the answer to each of these questions was (and still is) overwhelmingly “yes”. For Dr. Freeman, playing games together represented a part of the concept but there was still an important element that seemed to be missing: did playing games together lead to changes in brain development? Was there something about playing strategic games with other people that created positive changes in the brain?
Dr. Freeman has a background in neuroscience and neuropsychological assessment, as the Director of Neuroscience Research at a Manhattan-based, research organization. And he recognized that many strategic board and card game mechanics shared similarities to neuropsychological assessments and tests. Typically, they are used to help evaluate if there are focal areas of brain function (e.g., language areas, executive functioning, etc) that are outside of an expected range. So, he worked on finding a way to zero in on a focal area of the brain and then exploring how a game could be utilized to stimulate that area of the brain.
This concept became the impetus for the organization of game play within the after school clubs. Each club could, in effect, represent a focal brain area and be sequenced from simplest through most complex. Dr. Freeman recalled a classic idea in the world of neuroscience, “cells that fire together, wire together.” But any scientist would ask the basic question: can repeated stimulation of a localized brain area result in measurable and observable changes in the abilities of students that played these games?
While the obvious answer might seem like, “of course it does,” it turns out that the answer is not entirely straightforward. First, there is very little data, as few studies appear to be focused on these points. The data that does exist is inadequate, enough that it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions. For example, even though published articles on chess tend to repeat how playing the game improves executive functioning (e.g, the ability to plan ahead and think strategically), the limited data that exists shows that the activated areas of the brain are in fact not the frontal lobes (critical to executive function)- but instead, are the temporal-parietal lobes (important for spatial location and recollection of historic data). If this is true, then expert chess players are really experts in recognizing positions of pieces on the board and not necessarily strategic thinking. With this caveat in mind, Dr. Freeman decided to push forward anyway because, even if we cannot exactly pinpoint the area of the brain being activated, there are certainly benefits to improving neuronal wiring – even if it is more generalized across the brain than localized.
Dr. Freeman also recognized the importance of how curriculum and instruction reflect what is known about the biological basis for thinking. Students perform best in a “horizontal curriculum,” which challenges them to use a particular biologically determined stage of thinking using different materials at various levels of abstraction. This model allows students at an identified stage of development to explore many experiences within that stage. The essence of this approach is derived from the biological basis for thinking and learning, which shows that thinking capabilities are independent of the objects (e.g., game pieces) involved in a given task. Students experience small, sequential steps of understanding – through an inexhaustible set of possible experiences – that build upon themselves.
The original after school clubs (in 2011 at The Brooklyn Strategist) were conceptualized as independent “game modules” that would be played through their entirety. The original models were: Ancient Strategy Games (abstract strategy), Word Games, Classic and Modern Card Games, Sporting Games, History of Conflict (war games) and Civilization and Empire Building Games (Eurostyle or worker-placement/resource-management games). As described above, each of these modules utilized games that reflected a focal area of the brain. There was also an anticipation that each student would attend for a specific module or two and then move on from the Brooklyn Strategist program. Fortunately for Dr. Freeman, he was completely wrong about this assumption. It turns out the students were having fun and kept wanting to return, and parents remarked that they were observing skill-sets in their children that hadn’t been previously seen. As a result, students were attending for much longer periods than originally anticipated (many returned for several years in a row). This prompted a need for some change in how the game modules were presented. This led to a reorganization of a “circular curriculum” where students were divided based on grade levels (with accommodations for cognitive development/level) and multiple game modules were included in a revamped programming.
The method of each after school club has remained the same since its inception. Each game that is introduced as part of the sequence is played two weeks in a row. Week 1 focuses on rule explanation and methods of approach (how to solve the novel problem presented by the game and/or how to strategize). During this time, the instructor focuses on ensuring the participants understand the rules of play and works with students by helping contextualize the methods of approach and analyzing sequences of moves. Week 2 begins with a “rules refresher” after which students do their best through trial and error approaches. Upon completion of the game, a “debriefing” process happens where students review their thoughts, dilemmas and what they thought were “key moments.” Throughout the process, “good sportsmanship” is modeled and reinforced.
Hex & Company is bringing to Manhattan the same programs that were developed at The Brooklyn Strategist. As our community grows, our programs will expand so that advanced level classes will be introduced over time.
The classes, cognitive skill sets and brain localization
Brain Benders: This program was created based on parental requests. Originally designed for Kindergarteners, it was later expanded to include first graders. The games played in this sequence are designed to promote linear mathematical concepts, working memory, processing speed and enhance perceptual organization. Students learn how to classify an object into more than one category or into one category based on two or more simultaneous properties. Games played in this module predominantly localize the frontal lobes and the parietal cortex in the brain.
Mind Masters and Strategic Game Play: These modules introduce the circular curriculum and cover age-appropriate games of ancient and abstract strategy, classic and modern card games, word games, sport games and empire and civilization building games. A quick description below for each category shows what cognitive skills are being developed and reinforced and their associated localized brain area:
• Ancient Strategy Games: This sequence focuses on games that promote spatial and perceptual processing as they relate particularly to stored knowledge and information. The brain areas that are primarily activated are the parietal, occipital and temporal regions.
• Classic Card Games: Two areas that define classic card games are short-term, goal driven behavior (e.g., to win, to take a trick, to pass cards to an opponent) and magnitude processing and arithmetic fact retrieval (e.g., performing basic mathematics related to a hand of cards). When considered in this light, there are two brain areas that are primarily involved in these activities: the Intraparietal Sulcus (IPS) and the Prefrontal Cortex.
• Modern Card Games: The selected games for this sequence build upon the goal-driven behavior of the classic card games and add in planning abilities (with incomplete information) and item-related error and social processing. As a result, two additional focal brain areas – the ventromedial and orbito-frontal cortex – become activated. In particular, the right-hemispheric portions of the frontal cortex (affect regulation) are being stimulated in this sequence.
• Word Games: A fairly extensive literature suggests that the ability to analyze and manipulate language at the level of phonemes is largely dependent on exposure to an alphabetic writing system (as opposed to a biological timetable). Students in this sequence critically think about phoneme structure while working on planning abilities and inductive reasoning as they develop words from letter arrangement, stem completion and free- and associated-recall. The specific brain areas that are highlighted are the anterior cingulate, left parieto-temporal region and the medial temporal lobes.
• Empire and Civilization Building Games: The expression of increased neuronal connections and firing in the ventralmedial – and orbito-frontal cortex is seen when an individual can develop a theoretical framework based upon a logical rationale concerning the relationships among the objects or ideas comprising the framework. At the same time, there is a recognition that the arrangement is tentative and is one of many possible arrangements that may be changed upon fresh insights. The patterning that the human mind is capable of doing at this stage is complex and is expressed in many different ways. The cognition required to play these game exemplify the highest order of flexible thinking.
• Sporting Games: Although “sports” are the theme of this sequence, the games utilized promote decision tasks that are value-based. Skill sets that require estimating probability, delaying response gratification (e.g., impulse control) and working- and spatial-memory are reinforced through sequential game play. The specific brain areas affected are the Inferior parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex.
Role-playing Games (RPGs): There are a wide-variety of RPGs but, most of them at some basic level, require interpersonal interaction and, to a large degree, cooperation. It is also fair to say that cooperative social interaction is critical for human social development and learning. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider that these classes, now the most popular of all classes, were prompted by student requests and were originally not part of the game module sequence. The brain regions involved in playing RPGs affect the focal regions associated with social cognition, attention, and reward processing. In particular, these are the superior temporal sulcus, the anterior singulate cortex, the right cuneus/lingual gyrus and the right amygdala.
Tabletop Games*: Tabletop games is a general term for just about any game played on a table. More recently, this concept refers more specifically to games that are played with some form of miniature (or model), dice, measuring tape, complex rules and strategy. These type of hobby-games range from historical reenactments (e.g, civil war, WWI, WWII, etc) to fantasy-based combat. Students that engage in these programs utilize skills that reflect cognitive flexibility (e.g., changing cognitive set), working memory, response inhibition (i.e., delaying action for greater reward at a later point), and spatial orientation. They also draw specific attention to mathematic-based skills such as measuring distance and, at more advanced levels, basic trigonometry. The focal brain regions involved in these games are similar to the activation seen in RPGs and, in particular, the superior temporal sulcus, anterior singulate cortex, ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (e.g., typically involved in risk-reward decisions).
*Due to the complex nature of the rules in these games, students are invited and encouraged to attend weekend club activities (free of charge) as a way of reinforcing rule retention.