How playing board games can help teens when studying for exams

While revision is vital for exam preparation, it shouldn’t be all hard graft for teenagers, says Lisa Salmon.
How playing board games can help teens when studying for exams

MANY teenagers are gearing up for important exams and revision is on the horizon - if it hasn’t already started.

It’s hard for parents to keep teens focused on studying, or to throw in any new ideas to make it either more efficient or at least more bearable.

But considering there is a growing number of children experiencing exam stress — Childline has received 4,000 calls in the last two years about school anxiety and exam performance — with one of their main worries being the fear of disappointing their parents, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“The level of pressure is incomprehensible,” says Caroline O’Sullivan, ISPCC director of services.

“Too often we praise our young people for the results they achieve rather than their effort.”

Some psychologists believe parents can help teens focus more and improve their memory while feeling less pressured by getting them to play a few traditional games and puzzles during study periods - in moderation, of course.

And while playing games can help students relax, they have a practical, skill-linked element too, as it’s thought board games can help set young people up with valuable life skills including learning to lose and win, improving memory and organisational and strategic thinking, and boosting social skills.

In some games, for example, players have to learn that if a strategy’s not working, they need to change direction — a valuable tactic for academic work as well as life in general.


Educational psychologist Dr Kairen Cullen explains: “Our brains thrive on variety and stimulation and sitting for hours in front of written text can certainly dull the appetite for learning, so the addition of traditional and computer-based games, social interaction and physical activity is to be encouraged.”

Games such as Monopoly, Scrabble, bingo and chess can provide a quality cognitive workout while being a good, socially interactive way to unwind.

In addition, solo mind-benders such as sudoku and cryptic crosswords can improve cognitive dexterity while constructively distracting less outgoing teens from stress without forcing them to join in socially.

Outdoor games — weather permitting — can help teenagers’ brains function and improve their mood.

Studies have shown that exercise not only aids memory (possibly by boosting blood flow to the brain), but may even improve results if done just before an exam.

Plus, exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of the hormone serotonin, which is associated with improved mood, calmness and focus.

Not all games and puzzles are equally helpful, though — and the choice depends on which skills you want to improve.

Here’s a guide to which games will help with different cognitive abilities.


Internet psychologist Graham Jones says any games that enhance visualisation will help memory.

“One of the best ways of trying to remember facts is to visualise them,” he explains, “and a classic technique is to place the facts in picture form on a familiar journey.”

Because you easily remember the journey — such as the trip from home to school — you’ll then see the facts pop out as you mentally travel along the route.

“So a game that improves visual thinking would be good,” he says, pointing out that video games are an example of this type of game.

“They improve visualisation and so would help students more easily use the journey technique.”

Card games such as poker and Fish are great for flexing memory muscles, and bingo, especially the more complex 75-ball version, can increase recall and may also improve concentration and mood.

Solo activities, which can challenge your memory, include Sudoku and solitaire.

Mental dexterity and problem-solving

Many exams require a high degree of mental agility to think through scenarios and solve complex problems.

Chess is a good game for considering alternative courses of action and the risks, and poker can also help.

Even Monopoly may improve your powers of logical reasoning and decision-making.

Focus and concentration

Longer strategic games are a great choice if you want to improve attention span.

Chess is recognised as one of the best brain-training games, and studies show it’s effective at increasing focus and concentration due to its complex strategic nature.

However, it may be a challenge to persuade young people to tackle chess, as it’s not the trendiest of games.

More immediately engaging games and puzzles which may improve focus include Risk, or one of the new breed of board games such as Carcassonne or Puerto Rico.


And lastly, whether indoors or out, encourage regular study breaks, advises Jones.

“Another predictor of exam success is how well students break up studying into short periods,” he says.

“Those who do 20 minutes, then do something else for 20 minutes and then do another 20 minutes of study, tend to do the best.”

Cullen says students need to chunk, pace and vary revision.

She points out that humanist psychology asserts people need to experience, and are motivated by, achievement, exercising choice and feeling a sense of belonging.

“Successful revision should include opportunities for all of these, so when supporting a young person’s revision, the starting point should be to ask them what helps them feel better when they’re working hard, choose activities based on what they tell you and factor this into their plan.”

  • For more on how games can boost brainpower, visit 

Take control

Tips for young people

  •   Every student will experience some level of stress facing into or doing exams — that’s OK!
  •   Keep things in perspective – one exam will never define you or your future.
  •   Avoid comparing your study routines / results with school mates.
  •   Talk. Figure out what you are feeling and let it out.
  •   Reward yourself and the effort you are putting into preparation for the exams.
  •   Eat well, get out and breathe some fresh air, this will help your sleep patterns.
  •   There are lots of options and ways to achieve your future career goals – the Leaving Cert is just one way, there are many others.

Tips for parents/guardians

  •   Keep things in perspective. If an exam doesn’t go well, it’s not the end of the world – show your child that you are proud of them.
  •   Focus on effort rather than performance.
  •   Avoid criticism and provide support.
  •   Encourage a balanced approach to preparation to ensure that your child takes breaks, eats well and gets some exercise as well as study.
  •   Be there, observe, listen and support.

Advice from ISPCC

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