Play for Better Working Memory

Have you ever wondered what your child’s working memory is like? 

Working memory is part of the machinery that helps kids learn and solve problems. A great way of thinking about it is to picture a mental sticky note. The sticky note holds information until you need to work with it and fit all the pieces together to come up with the correct answer.  

As you can imagine, if you don’t have a decent working memory, it can be hard to learn. That’s why educators call it an ‘executive function’.

You’ll recognise that your child has problems with working memory when you give them a job like mowing the lawn this summer. Imagine them coming back inside for a cold drink and flopping down on the couch, hot and triumphant that they can finally get back to the important stuff. When you go outside and check, however, they haven’t finished. They’ve missed mowing down the side and they haven’t put the lawnmower away. 

This could be because they’re banking on your working memory being sub-par today! But it could also be because they are unable to hold all of the relevant information in their minds to complete the task. Your child may have difficulty grabbing onto and holding incoming information, and not just because it’s boring or they think that it’s unimportant!

A weak working memory not only impairs how kids remember instructions, but it can also affect learning in areas like reading and maths — disciplines that rely heavily on applying prior information to new ideas. 

The good news is that working memory can be improved!

Play to boost your child’s working memory and make a difference this year. Here are some fun, holiday-appropriate ways of doing that:

1. Playing cards

Uno, Go Fish or any type of memory/matching game can be fun family time for you and the kids over holidays. Card games improve executive function in more ways than one. You have to hold the rules of the game in your head, remember which cards have been played, and process how this knowledge can be used in the game. 

2. Games games games

Obviously, holidays are perfect for games of all kinds! Even the hours spent travelling during holidays can be used for fun games that help with working memory. Try the alphabet game, for instance. This is where you take turns adding words starting with each letter of the alphabet and reciting all the letters and words that people have added before your turn. Once Upon a Time is also a taking-turns memory game, where people start with ‘Once upon a time’ and add a new phrase or idea each time it is their turn. However, before they can add a new part to the story, they must recite each part of the story already created! Each part of the story is associated with the imagery within the story as well as with memory of the person who created it, which strengthens visualisation skills. 

3. Multi-sensory messaging

This one turns those boring house jobs you ask your kids to do into more fun than they usually are. Next time you want your child to follow an instruction that has several steps, try communicating it using different senses. Don’t just say it or write it down, toss a ball back and forth while discussing it, and get them to recite it back to you. Or get them to tap their head and rub their tummies, or swing their arms in different directions while reciting it back. Pretty hard but also fun and silly and gets their brains whirring!

4. Making connections between ideas 

Remember how much easier it was to recall facts about the solar system when the teacher allowed you to touch and move different sized balls to simulate the movement and placement of planets? Or how memorising a list for an exam was always easier if you created a mnemonic and a whacky sentence to go with it? You possibly learned the months of the year by singing a song! Some people embed a list or group of ideas into working memory by creating an action around the main verb or central idea in each point and memorising a flow of actions (warning: this can look pretty funny in an exam but it works if you're someone who learns best through touch and movement — which, by the way, means that you're a kinaesthetic learner). The point is, like throwing the ball when you're learning something, you're making connections between pieces of information and between different parts of the brain to boost working and long term memory. 

Heads up: make games fun and light-hearted, simplify/shorten them if you’re playing with young children or kids who have a way to go to improve their working memory, gradually building up in complexity. For example: 

  1. If you're playing memory, don't use the whole pack of card pairs
  2. If you're playing the alphabet game, don’t go all the way to ‘z’ 
  3. If you're playing Once Upon A Time, keep each new addition short and uncomplicated — and consider adding actions for those kinaesthetic learners!

So, while it’s still holidays and you’re looking for some fun, make a difference for school (and household chores!) this year. Working memory is good for everyone. Don’t let it be the obstacle to your child’s education this school year.

  1. 5 Ways Kids Use Working Memory at School
  2. 3 Areas of Executive Function 
  3. Memorizing: Faster, Easier, Longer Lasting, and More Fun

Author: Debbie Cosier has worked as an English and enhanced learning teacher in schools for over 20 years. She is now an education writer for Brisbane Adventist College as well as other schools and organisations. To request an article topic, please email her at