Playing Smart: Brain Benders
The human brain is amazing. It can imagine all kinds of things that humans can’t even do yet. It’s this vast power of imagination that helps make us what we are. If you’re like most parents, you want your child to develop his or her brainpower as fully as possible. You can help extend your child’s mental reach by teaching him or her to think both creatively and logically. The activities highlighted below provide stretching exercises of all kinds for young brains.

Play with Paradox A paradox is a statement in which the information you’re working with seems reasonable and your logic is correct, but what you end up with just doesn’t make sense. Here are some paradoxes to explore with your school-age child:

  • In the sixth century B.C., Epimenides the Cretan said: “All Cretans are liars.” Is he telling the truth? If so, he’s lying … and so on. A modern version: Say, “I’m lying.” Are you? Then you aren’t – or are you?
  • Say to a friend, “Answer yes or no: Will the next word you speak be ‘no’?”
  • This sentence is false.
  • Jason was disappointed that his club meeting room had no suggestion box, because he wanted to put a suggestion in it about having one.

    Self-Reference Paradox – Print on one side of a card, “The statement on the other side of this card is true.” Then print on the other side, “The statement on the other side of this card is false.” The problem is, if you believe the first side to be true, then it must be false. If you assume it’s false, it turns out to be true.

    Endless Sequence – This is what you get when you look into a mirror with another mirror. Try it! Young children enjoy this endless sequence: “Pete and Repeat are on a boat. Pete falls off. Who’s left?” At the obvious answer, “Repeat,” the first part is repeated.

    Who Are You Calling an Oxymoron? – An oxymoron is a short paradox expressed in words that seem to contradict each other. Examples: Soft rock, loud whisper, sad smile, living doll, mighty mouse, permanent loan. Can you and your child think of others?

    Lists, Questions and Mind Stretchers Have your child develop her own book of lists, using questions like these as starting points:

  • What are your six favorite foods?
  • What are four words with an unpleasant sound?
  • What are the five most beautiful words in English?
  • Which three books would you take with you to a desert island?

    How Not To – Educator and author Herb Kohl found that asking students to list “10 Ways Not to ____” frees their creativity and helps them learn to do a particular task. Have your child make up such a list. Example: Your son wants to learn how to bake cookies. You teach him the basics and then ask him to come up with “10 Ways Not to Bake Cookies.” These might include: Be sure the oven is cold. Wrap yourself in foil. Stir the dough with a banana.

    Need to Know – Various authors have published books listing what they believe are the most important facts children of a given age or every adult should know. Work with your child to compile a booklet of “necessary information” for his age group.

    Silly Stunts – TV shows sometimes ask guests to perform incredible or silly stunts. Brainstorm some stunts you’d like to see – the more outrageous, the better. Examples: Fold a pretzel and carry it to Guam. Do a backwards double flip. Toss a car across a creek.

    What’s Wrong? – Challenge your child to draw a “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” picture. Choose a place or scene – bedroom, living room, classroom, grocery store – and imagine everything that could be wrong. Examples: A cat in the fish tank, a TV remote control in the baby’s crib, books with their titles spelled wrong or with the wrong authors’ names, a computer with the keys in an odd order.

    More Brainteasers Draw a Solution – Ask your child to draw solutions to imaginative problems, including plenty of detail. Examples: Invent a machine that washes your dog. How would you go about measuring a giraffe? Design a stove that cooks and then cleans up after itself. Draw a new, improved human body. Design a computer especially for horse trainers.

    101 Uses – You may have seen books in the genre of “101-Uses-for … ” Try brainstorming ideas for new books about 101 Uses for ... empty coffee cans, toothpicks, dental floss, torn balloons, dust, broken clocks or brussels sprouts. If one or more of the titles is inspiring enough, your child may decide to write the book.

    Crazy Cartoon Captions – Assemble a collection of cartoons (those from The New Yorker are especially good for this) and cut off or fold under the captions. Then devise your own captions.

    Proverb-o-mania – Devise new endings for familiar proverbs. First-graders came up with these: “Don’t bite the hand that … is dirty.” “Eat, drink, and … go to the bathroom.” “If at first you don’t succeed … go play.” Other proverbs to rewrite: “All work and no play …,” “Don’t put all your eggs …,” “Don’t count your chickens …,” “People who live in glass houses …,” “You can lead a horse to water, but …”

    Imagination Towers – Have your child (and his pals or siblings) design, decorate and populate an imaginary apartment building. Spread some large sheets of paper or taped-together grocery bags on a table or the floor or attach it to a wall. Draw the building’s outline using a ruler. Make it at least 4 feet long (or high), with plenty of large windows. Extra touches such as a fancy door, front porch or rooftop garden can be left to the whim of individual child designers. Say: “Pretend you can get close to each of the windows, so you can see into the entire room. Imagine what you might see in each of these rooms and draw it.” It’s fun to add word balloons, cartoon-style, to give voices to the characters.

    See also: Brain Benders Resources 

  • For more fun learning activities, go to the Playing Smart Archive.

    Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of "Playing Smart: The Family Guide to
    Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14" (Free Spirit
    Publishing, 2001), from which her columns are adapted. Check out Susan¹s Web
    site at