Friday Rant: Nurturing Academic and Life Success With Games, Not Just Dollars

As the un-official end of summer approaches and another academic year ramps up, it's quite possible that all of us who wish to give the young people in our lives the very best leg up on future academic and career success should re-examine our tendency to invest in canned solitary developmental exercises like early reading and virtual or physical rote exercises like flash cards and language tapes.

A recent New York Times Magazine article claims that "...playing certain kinds of childhood games may be the best way to increase a child's ability to do well in school. Variations on Freeze Tag and Simon Says... [and] versions of Red Light, Green Light... require relatively high levels of executive function, testing a child's ability to pay attention, remember rules and exhibit self-control -- qualities that also predict academic success." According to "Megan McClellan, an early childhood-development researcher, 'Play is one of the most cognitively stimulating things a child can do.' "

Ellen Galinsky, author of "Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs" is also quoted saying "We tend to equate learning with the content of learning, with what information children have, rather than the how of learning... focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success."

We can only hope that these games might also promote respect for rules, self control and also instill a cognitive preference for personal integrity. Ironically, the latter appears more elusive than ever before. Today's NYT reports that Harvard University, the stalwart of elite Ivy League education, "revealed Thursday what could be its largest cheating scandal in memory, saying that about 125 [undergraduate] students might have worked in groups on a take-home final exam despite being explicitly required to work alone... nearly half of the more than 250 students in the class..."

These late crème de la crème adolescents, while apparently still testing authority, may well have focused on "the how of learning" but elected to engage in "academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism" to prove their worth. It would seem that we might also do well to invent childhood games that imbue and exemplify the personal consequences -- not just the risk of punishment -- of being deceitful, and that impairs self esteem and diminishes the earned confidence that accompanies such behavior.

I can think of at least two prominent and actionable measures we can all take to remediate this systemic dysfunction. 1): We must, throughout our business careers, be vigilant to teach and reward children of all ages by example in the course of upholding copyrights, respecting intellectual property rights and celebrating honest accomplishment. And 2): Work to restore, with a vengeance, secondary public school sports programs that are invaluable to teaching honorable gamesmanship and have been gutted from urban school budgets.

Please comment with other suggestions.

- William Busch

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