Early Childhood Education

Building Young Students’ Working Memory Through Theater Games

By remembering the information necessary to play certain games, students develop skills that lead to academic success.

April 4, 2024
vgajic / iStock

“Turn in your homework, get out your book, and come to the rug.” Seems simple enough. However, anytime students need to follow multistep directions and keep information in mind long enough to accomplish a task, we are actually asking them to use a complex form of cognitive processing called working memory, which helps store information in the short term. For example, when students read a passage, they use working memory to retain information, perhaps just long enough to successfully answer questions about it. Or, in math, students might use it to keep track of which step they are on in order to solve a problem correctly.

Working memory is like the brain’s scratchpad. It’s a core executive function skill that neuroscientist Adele Diamond determined is critical for cognitive, social, and psychological development; success in school and in life; and mental and physical health. Research supports the connection between strong working memory and academic success, especially as it relates to math and reading comprehension.

The good news is that working memory can improve, simply, through play. Making believe can have a most profound impact on young minds: When children “self-distance” or pretend to be someone else, these skills actually improve. As a theater teacher, I already believed that imagination could unlock incredible potential in our young people. The studies about the “Batman Effect” led me to collaborate with Mount Sinai Parenting Center on guided-play games that educators and families can use to practice these brain-based self-control skills.

The following theater games build students’ capacity for attention regulation and especially their working memory. You can add this social and emotional learning (SEL) boost to your morning-meeting routine or tie it into your curriculum.

4 Theater Games That Boost Working Memory and Other Skills

1. Movement Story and Sound Story. (Literacy) Start by making up a simple story with your students. Anytime a new character or element is introduced, ask them to act it out with a gesture. Once there are about five gestures, have the class retell the story using just the movements and no words. I call this Movement Story. You can follow a similar pattern and play Sound Story with noises or catchphrases. Have students take turns and retell what they made up, just through the sounds. As they get more adept at this, build longer stories together, helping to increase their stamina for recalling more information.

2. Taxi. (Imagination) Dramatic play requires young children to keep information in mind, like who their character is and what the rules of the world are. A great example of this is in the improv game Taxi, where kids imagine they are someone with an important place to go, and the taxi will help them get there. You can start as a driver with kids lined up to hail a ride. One at a time they get in the cab and let you know who they are and where they need to go. The driver can ask some questions, and the student responds in character. The road can wind or bump or detour; there might be magical wings on the cab needed to get them to their destination on time.

After about a minute in the taxi, they “arrive” and need to pay the driver. This could be in the form of magical coins, a special dance, or delicious food. The payment marks the end of their turn, and another student can now hail the taxi. Students are practicing working memory as they follow the established formula of the game and as they hold on to their character throughout their time in the taxi.

3. Four Corner Emotion. (SEL) In Four Corner Emotion, students repeat a phrase inspired by different “feeling” words. The phrase could be simple, like “How are you?” or a more complicated line of dialogue from a book. Prepare the game by labeling each corner of your room with a different emotion—for example, anger, fear, joy, and sadness. Start by having a student say the phrase neutrally. Then, when you call out an emotion, they run to that corner and say the phrase as if they are feeling that way. Keep calling out different emotions until the student has visited all four corners.

This game exercises working memory on a variety of levels: Students have to keep the phrase in mind as they move around the room. Additionally, they have to recall the ways that emotion manifests in the body, voice, and face so they can accurately portray it when they get to that corner. For more advanced memory work, have the students recall which corner goes with which emotion rather than having them labeled.

Through playing, students can grow their emotional literacy and learn more feeling vocabulary, which can lead to better academic performance. They can also see the many different ways one emotion can be expressed. For example, “anger” may look seething and quiet for one person but explosive and loud for another, even as they say the same phrase.

4. Landmarks. (Curriculum tie-ins) To play Landmarks, first brainstorm a list of specific locations with your class. These could be places in a book, geography terms, or a relevant tie-in with your curriculum. With each of these locales, the students come up with a pose they would make that uniquely symbolizes the place. Experiment with levels, groupings, and using the room creatively.

For example, for a New York study, you might name specific places, like “Brooklyn Bridge” (“Find a partner and raise your arms like a bridge”), “Statue of Liberty” (“Stand on your chair with a pretend book and torch”), and “Central Park Zoo” (“Get on all fours and be an animal!”). Call out the locations, and kids will have to remember and do the gesture that they assigned to it. Turn on music in the background and play it like a freeze dance game, where kids are moving until you call out a “landmark.” Much like movement games that help with spelling, this physicalization helps retention and makes the learning all the more fun.

It’s your turn. What games or activities do you use to help your students develop their working memory? Share in the comments.

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Filed Under

  • Arts Integration
  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Pre-K

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