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Self-regulation—or the ability to control your own emotions and behaviour—is an essential life skill for kids: It helps with everything from social relationships to self-care to learning how to read and write. If a kid can handle their feelings and choose to act in ways that help them achieve specific goals (such as ignoring distractions to focus on reading, or not melting down after losing at a game so other kids want to play with them again), they are off to a great start in life.

A recent Michigan State University study backs this up. Researchers used a variation of the game “Simon Says,” which requires kids both to follow instructions (touch your nose) and do the opposite of what the instruction says (don’t touch your nose). For the study, the researchers had kids play this game to determine how well they self-regulate, and they also had them periodically take tests in reading comprehension, phonological awareness and vocabulary to track their literacy skills. Their findings showed that “children who demonstrated self-regulation earlier had higher language and literacy skills throughout preschool to second grade.”

If you want to get your kids off to a great start, you can play fun games like Simon Says to practice self-regulation. Any game that requires controlling impulses and movements can help kids increase their control over their own thoughts, emotional responses and actions. Those games that involve winning or losing also help kids practice being a good sport and tolerating discomfort, so they’re better equipped to deal when things don’t go the way they’d hoped. Bonus: The experience of getting off screens and having fun with you is great for bonding too.

Along with Simon Says, here are five more of our favourite self-regulation games to get you started:

1. Freeze dance. Have a dance party with a small group of kids or family members and tell everyone that when you stop the music, they must hold very still. The first person to move is eliminated for the next round. The winner is the last one dancing.

2. Traffic lights. One kid plays traffic cop and turns to face a wall. The other kids start at the other side of the room—or if they’re outdoors, at a starting line. When the traffic cop shouts “Green!” the kids can advance. If the traffic cop shout “Red!” the kids have to stop, and the cop gets to turns around and see if everyone obeys. If they catch any kid still moving, they can send them back to the start line. The winner is the first person to cross the room (or yard) and tag the traffic cop.

3. Musical chairs. Set out enough chairs in a row, alternating facing front and back, for every player—minus one. Play music and have kids walk or dance around the chairs. When the music stops, they must make a beeline for the closest chair. Each round, the player who doesn’t manage to grab a seat is eliminated, until just one winning player remains.

4. Orchestra. Give kids percussion instruments to tap and wave and have them follow one kid at the front, who is playing conductor, with a baton in hand (a pen, ruler or stick will do). The conductor sets the tempo and everyone must speed up and slow down accordingly. Kids will learn to control their body movements to create a harmonious sound together.

5. Jenga. This stacking game requires a steady hand and careful planning of movements. The frustration of losing is softened by the fun of seeing the tower fall, so it’s an especially good one to use to help turn a sore loser into a good sport.

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