How to turn a simple game into a brain workout for your kids
My children were about 5 and 6 when I first started playing the Guess My Animal game with them in the car. This is a modified version of 20 Questions, where one person thinks of an animal, and the rest of us ask questions with yes or no answers until someone guesses that animal.
We did not limit ourselves to 20 questions, as less than 30 seconds into a round, they would already have fired off about 46 questions apiece and were generally no closer to the correct answer.
It sounded something like this:
“Is it a monkey?”
“Is it a dog?”
“Is it a cat?”
“Is it an elephant?”
“Is it a rabbit?”
(I think you can probably see where this is going.)
They burst out with their questions as fast as they could think of new animals – and, often the same animal was shouted out 4 or 5 times.
Hmm, well… their crafty game plan appeared to be to shout out any animal that popped into their head and hope that was the correct answer.
Occasionally, they actually did happen upon the right answer (it didn’t hurt that we all knew Marley likes monkeys best and Polly’s favorite animals are owls and rabbits – and as such, monkeys, rabbits, and owls were the correct with curious frequency).
But otherwise, right answers were arrived at via sheer luck. It had to be luck, because their questions definitely weren’t yielding any meaningful insights or narrowing the field of choice.
If any skill was being developed, it was “speed-animal-naming.” And, I am happy to report that they are both very good at that.
But I was damned and determined that these two speed-naming offspring of mine were going to be prepared for something in life beyond roll call at the zoo – as pleasant a job as I am sure that would be.
This game, I craftily concluded, was a ripe opportunity for my little peaches to stretch their thinking, practice listening, and give their powers of recall a workout. After all, a little mental aerobics on the way to the grocery store never hurt anybody.
My goal? To get them thinking.
I needed to shift the emphasis in the game from asking the single question that yielded the one right answer, to asking smart information-yielding questions that would change the game from a game of luck to a game of skill.
I start by asking them, “If Polly asks, ’Is it a cow?’ and the answer is no, what do we learn?”
“It’s not a cow,” says my 6 years old son, Marley.
“Right! We know it’s not a cow. Do you think we could ask a different question that would give us more information about this mystery animal?”
Blank stares. To be expected. Not a problem.
I continue, “What if we asked, ’Does it live on a farm?’ If the answer is no, what do we know now?”
“It doesn’t live on a farm.” Marley again. Gotta love that concrete thinking.
“True!” I agree. “So, what animals live on farms?”
This they have no problem with (after all, they are experts at listing animals): cows, sheep, pigs, roosters, maybe goats, dogs, horses, bulls, cats, chickens, maybe rabbits…
“Stupendous!” I say. “So, now we know it is not any of those animals. Now we know that it is not a cow, but we ALSO know that it isn’t a horse, or a sheep, or a pig, chicken, rooster… or any of the animals that live on farms.”
I think they are following me so far. We try to think of more GOOD QUESTIONS – questions that will give us more information – and we come up with a few:
Does it live on land?
Does it live in water?
Does it have fur?
Does it eat meat?
Does it eat only plants?
Does it walk on four legs?
Does it have legs?
Does it climb?
Does it have a tail?
“Holy cow!! Those are really good questions,” I say. (I show lots of enthusiasm.) “It doesn’t matter if the answer is yes or no,” I remind them. “What matters is what we learn.”
Building patience, memory, attention, and critical thinking skills…
It takes younger children a while to recognize the benefits of this strategy. It means first asking questions that CANNOT yield the correct answer – which requires patience. It means paying attention – because you have to remember the answers that came before. And it means pausing to think about what would be a helpful next question – which requires critical thinking.
We all got better at asking good questions. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just a game for little kids. After we have been playing this game for a while, I notice that before I ask a question, I am now thinking ahead to what a yes will mean, what a no will tell me. Will the information help me? I am sharpening my own cognitive tools! (And believe me, they need sharpening. Parenthood has a way of wearing one’s intellect down to a nub.)
I am struck by how many mental skills are involved in this game.
And yet, even with all this talk about strategy, I still find that an answer such as, “No, it does not have fur,” is often followed by, “Is it a cat?”
So, between questions, I institute a pause – so we can rehash. “Ok, what do we know so far?”
And we list off all the things we have learned: It lives on land. It does not eat meat. It does have a tail. It does not live on a farm.
This is hard for them at first, because they haven’t been paying attention. Instead, they have been thinking about the next animal they will suggest, or what their next question will be. But after a short time, they realize that we are going to pause to remember what we have learned after every question, so they need to pay attention. And, lo and behold, their recall gets better. Which also means that their questions get better.
“Does this animal live in the water?” I ask.
“Ok,” I say. “That is interesting. So now we know that it is not any of the animals that live in water!”
And just for good measure, I remind my daughter, “So, we won’t ask if it’s a dolphin or a whale, right? Because we KNOW it isn’t.”
She agrees. But I also know that the connection between the information we just learned and her questions is still tenuous. So, I drill down.
“And how do we KNOW it isn’t a dolphin or a whale?” I want to be sure she is mentally taking the time to put these pieces together.
She thinks, “Because it doesn’t live in water.”
We continue the game.
“Does this animal live on land?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Marley.
“Is it a rabbit?” Polly can’t help herself. This question literally bursts out of her. The urge to be right is mighty powerful for little people.
I realize that I am probably partly to blame for that. They have so often been rewarded for right answers. But, I wonder, how often do I think to give equal acknowledgement and reward for great questions? Probably not very often. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that it’s bad to be right, but kids can get the mistaken idea that being right is the most important thing – more important than being CURIOUS.
Children generally have a strong inclination to think that an incorrect answer is bad. For some children, the worry about being wrong stops them from even trying in the first place. It was Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If only we could all think more like Mr. Edison.
This game reinforces a powerful message – we ask questions so we can learn, rather than for the sake of being right or to prove that we know something. And this game invites lots of opportunity to celebrate great questions.
“No. It’s not a rabbit.” Marley shakes his head at his sister. At 15 months her senior, he has caught on to this strategy business more quickly than she has.
We discover through trial and error that location is a great limiter, lets us rule out large chunks of the animal kingdom with one question. Would we see this animal at the zoo? Does this animal live in the jungle?
Troublesome questions are the best (at least for my sneaky purposes) – and we often run into troublesome questions. These are the questions which give us the most opportunity to think critically, questions such as, “Is it big?” To which my son, answers, “Yes.” However, when the animal turns out to be a sheep, Polly argues that a sheep is not big.
“Ah,” I jump in. “So, different people might have different ideas about what big looks like,” I say. “‘Big’ is not specific enough. What is a different way we could ask that question?”
Marley says, “We could ask if it is as big as an elephant.”
I raise my eyebrows, impressed. “What a great strategy!” I say. “To compare it to something we know, and we all know how big an elephant is.” I can see that he is proud of himself.
“How many animals can we think of that are as big as elephants?” I ask. We decide that whales might be bigger. Giraffes are taller. But, nothing else is really bigger than an elephant.
“Tyrannosaurus Rex!” Polly exclaims.
Marley rolls his eyes. “They can’t be animals that are extinct!”
“Well,” I say, “Let’s use that strategy of comparing, but if we compare to an elephant, that isn’t going to help us very much, because almost all animals are smaller than elephants. Can we think of an animal that is more medium sized?”
This leads to more thinking than I expected, because we realize that some animals come in very different sizes, like bears. I can see them thinking, screwing their faces up with the strain of their concentration.
And is it a baby or a grown up animal? Ah! We hadn’t thought about that.
More mental push ups!
We decide that a good question would be, “Is it bigger than our dog, Maggie?” because we all know what size she is. But we acknowledge that this question would not work with someone who does not know our dog.
More possibilities to consider! They get hung up for a while thinking about exceptions, pondering why a question might not work, trying to predict potential pitfalls.
Ah… I can hear the cogs turning, the wheels grinding. I can almost feel their brains growing, stretching…
And they are enjoying this! They love the challenge.
Of course, it doesn’t ever occur to them that they are learning – which is how most of the best learning happens!