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English Language Arts | Summer Learning | Teaching Strategies | May 13, 2024

Critical Thinking Games for the Summer (and Year-Round)

As a parent and a teacher, I’m constantly looking for new ways to engage my kids and my students both in and away from school. This article shares seven critical thinking games to share with children that build brain power. These “brain games” are perfect for the summer months when school is not in session, but are powerful in the classroom, too.

Benefits of Critical Thinking Games

Games have the potential to support learning and give students the opportunity to build critical thinking skills, requiring players to examine and analyze, make judgements and decisions, and evaluate. Games have the added benefit of being engaging for players of all ages. Critical thinking games for kids are a great opportunity to hone skills while having fun.

Examples of Critical Thinking Games

Critical thinking games need not be complicated to prepare or create. The following is a roundup of seven critical thinking games that require little to no preparation before kids of all ages can dive in and have fun. Use these critical thinking games in your classroom or at home with kids during summer break to keep their brains sharp. Share these games with parents and families before summer break to help kids build critical thinking skills all year long.

Math Operations Game

This is a challenge that I have in my classroom that can easily be recreated at home, inspired by the math game Krypto. You need number cards for the numbers 1–12. You randomly flip over five cards. Then, flip over one more as your target card. Students use any mathematical operations to find a way for the first five numbers to equal the target card. They must use each number only once, but they can put them in any order. This is a great way to teach your child about order of operations! Here is an example with the following cards: 1, 6, 2, 9, 8, and target 7. Answer: (8 ÷ 2 – 6) × 1 + 9 = 7 (Younger students don’t have to follow the order of operations. They can just write equations from left to right.)

Which Do You Like More?

Kids can play this with or without you. Simply ask questions of each other in which you must analyze two similar nouns and decide which you like better and why. For example, my son recently asked me if I liked the Sun or Earth more. I had to choose one and then explain why I chose it. (The most important part of this exercise is elaboration, since it practices a key, difficult critical thinking skill.) Make sure players understand that coming up with the comparisons is at times as difficult and important as choosing the answer. Note: the two items in the question must be somewhat similar so that true analysis takes place.

Yes/No Critical Thinking Questions

Many verbal games can be played with yes/no questions. Take any game that is traditionally a guessing game (Guess My Number) and make it a yes/no question game. You say, “I’m thinking of a number from 1 to 200.” The children must ask you yes/no questions with mathematically accurate vocabulary. They might say, “Is the number prime?” Younger children can ask, “Is the number even?” or “Is the number greater than 50?” If the child asks a question without using mathematical vocabulary, don’t answer the question. And don’t answer if they just make guesses!

I Spy (with a Twist)

This is still our favorite car ride game and a great one to suggest to parents. It can also be played in the classroom or playground. Instead of always "spying" a colored object, as is traditional, we spy objects that are certain shapes, distances, or textures. You might say, “I spy an oval.” Or “I spy something about a mile away.” Or even, “I spy something bumpy.” It certainly makes the game more interesting. And don’t forget to allow yes/no critical thinking questions. For example, ask, “Is the object high in the sky?” Or “Is the object on the floor?”

ABC Categories

I can remember playing this game with my sister when I was in elementary school. Think of a category and name an object from that category for every letter of the alphabet. You can add complexity by making the categories more difficult or by having every person name an example for every letter. Popular categories are movies, characters from books, or things you might see on vacation.

TCM_CritiThinkGamesforSummerYearRound-650x520-2Spell a Word Game

This game is inspired by the popular game Boggle®. Have your child draw a 4 x 4 grid on a piece of paper. Call out 16 letters and tell them to place the letters wherever they want in the grid. (Be helpful and begin by giving them the most-used letters. As you play more often, you can substitute more advanced letter combinations.) Then, have them list all the words they can find by connecting touching letters. They can only use each letter once in each word. The letters must be touching in order to be used. They get one point for three-letter words, two points for four-letter words, and so on. Here is an example board with some words that can be found in it.

W    M    S    I
E    A    E    D
R    T    H    U
B    O    P    S

(Words: wear, brat, brew, pot, she, side, suds, mat . . .)

Countdown to School—Today’s Number

Have students do a today’s number journal using negative numbers. They can start by writing equations for the number –1 and proceed to a new number each day all the way to –56. However, be sure to give them some high standards for what kinds of equations you expect. Do not let them use simple addition and subtraction sentences. (This includes even our youngest students!) Encourage fractions, division, multiplication, and even exponents! You can simplify this by using positive numbers from 1–56. For example:

Too Easy:    x + 3 = -1
Better:        16/x + 4 = -1 or 3x – 2/3 = -1

To enhance this game, tell students how many equations they need for each day (at least 10). Consider buying them a special journal for this activity. Encourage the use of time or money equations where possible.

Even when school is not in session, we have rich opportunities to help children have fun and learn. Critical thinking games are the perfect tool to engage students at any time of year and can require little to no preparation or materials. Share or incorporate these “brain games” into your summer routine to support children of all ages.


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Emily R. Smith

Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed., is an award-winning editorial director and former elementary school teacher. She has worked in the field of education as a teacher and editor for 20 years. Emily is currently an editorial director with Teacher Created Materials, Inc. As a former classroom teacher, she knows how hard it can be to reach and to engage students in today’s schools. Her experience and insight are valuable tools as she strives to help teachers by creating thoughtful, original products and...

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