I’m a huge fan of guessing games, like the classic, 20 Questions.  


Kids develop some serious mental skills as they become little sleuths.  20 questions are like vitamins for the mind, but the kind of vitamins that kids really crave (think fruity and chewy!).


I also love this game, as a parent, since it keeps kids calm and focused; it’s my go-to for tight spaces, like cars, planes or restaurants.


Here are more reasons that guessing games are great:


“20 Questions” boosts kids’ mental stamina and helps to foster a growth mindset. Additionally, kids are practicing focus, flexible thinking and working memory – crucial executive functioning skills.  Furthermore, this game gets kids listening and processing information, and you can pop in some great new vocabulary, all through play.  Finally, these games can help your kids understand process of elimination – a necessary skill when facing the dreaded standardized test.  


How To Play



You can literally do a Guessing Game about anything!  You may find this totally liberating, alternatively you may want structure to get you going, so here’s some ideas to springboard you and your little detective:


Person A picks a topic to guess about (see suggestions below).


Person B asks yes or no questions until the answer is achieved (or you reach 20 questions)


Make sure you switch A/B to give the guesser a chance to have the secret too!


Here are some springboards into the guessing…


Guess who

  • I saw today?
  • has a birthday coming up?
  • is coming to visit us?
  • I’m thinking of?

Guess what

  • animal I’m thinking of?
  • character I’m thinking of?
  • arrived in the mail?
  • song I’m thinking of?


Personal Anecdote Moment: As New Yorkers, we are constantly out on the street and therefore often running into people we know from various circles of life.  My husband and I (even without Nathaniel), play what we call, “Guess who (I ran into)?” almost on a daily basis.  Nathaniel has seen how much fun we have playing with each other, needless to say, it was such a cool moment when he exclaimed, “I have a ‘guess who’ for you, mom!”.  After 12 tries I guessed that he ran into his old teacher – a super sweet family bonding time!


The Magical “Yet” and Growth Mindset

The beauty of 20 Questions, or any version of your own guessing game, is that it is a process.  During this process, your child will be inevitably floundering, in a state of not-knowing.  The answer won’t be available to them unless they persist – even in the face of the word “no”.


Furthermore, your kid may even hit a wall where they feel like they have no idea what the answer is.  That’s precisely when it is important for them to stick with it!  


Carol Dweck, is a famous Stanford researcher who worked to understand why some children loved challenges and move beyond failures.  She coined the concepts, “Growth Mindset” and “Fixed Mindset”.  The 20 Questions game can help kids work toward a stronger growth mindset, as they persist and practice rebounding with each “no” they are given.  


“You can see evidence of fixed mindset as young as 3.5 or 4 years old; that’s when mindsets can start becoming evident, where some kids are very upset when they make a mistake or get criticized and fall into a helpless place.”

 – Carol Dweck

How wonderful, therefore, to give kids an opportunity to be wrong, to pick themselves up – even in the middle of the game – and keep playing.  


I like to praise the effort here.   When I can tell that Nathaniel is using great logic to ask the next question, even if he didn’t guess it YET, I make sure to commend him for that.  But don’t go overboard with praise, especially when the outcome isn’t right – then you’d be falling into what Dweck calls the False Growth Mindset, and misconstruing her work! 


Executive Functioning At Work

My collaborators at Seedlings Group, first opened my eyes to Executive Functioning Skills, and ever since, I’ve been delighted to connect the dots between my favorite games and the mental processes that they support.  

Practice Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is a core “executive functioning” skill. Kids are being asked to shift from one idea to another, when they play 20 Questions.  This ability to be adaptive and adjust their thinking is crucial for successful life outcomes, as it turns out.*


Below is a pretend script – complete with inner monologue of a kid.  As you can see, there is a lot of flexible thinking that has to go into this game.


A: Ok – guess what animal I’m thinking of!


B: Does it have scales?


A: No (Inner monologue: Shoot – I thought you were thinking of a fish.  Ok, deep breath, I’ll try again).


B: Does it have fur?


A: Yes


B: Could it live in the zoo?


A: No


B: (Inner monologue: Oh man, I thought you were thinking of a bear…now I have to come at this from a different angle.  I know – I’ll ask if it could be a pet.)

Could it be a pet?


A: Yes!


B:  Is it a dog.


A: No.


B: A cat?


A:  No.


B: (Ahhhhh.  I want to give up.  What else has fur that is a pet? There is nothing. Oh, wait…) A hamster?


A: Yes!


Focus and Attention

Kids have to really listen to the clues they are getting, rather than zoning out.  They have to stay in the moment with the game as well as give it all their focus.  The more they give their attention to the answers, and work on what the next question should be, the greater success they’ll have.  

With a positive discipline approach, we praise what we want to see more of, so give attention to your kids when they are focusing and working hard to deduce the answer.  You’ll see even more of that great focus from them since they get that praise from you!


Impulse Control

It is certainly challenging for kids to keep a secret!  Make sure to switch up the game, rather than having them ask you questions, put them in control too.  When kids are in charge of the answer, and you have to ask the 20 questions, they are getting a great impulse control work-out!  


“There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions, by their very nature, lead to one or another impulse to act”

– Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ


During the game, chances are, it will be tempting for them to blurt out the answer, however, if they do, the game is over.  Instead, they have to exercise control and discipline by simply answering “yes” or “no” to your questions.  Practicing this kind of restraint and precision is great for life skills!  They are working that control like a muscle, and it will get stronger and stronger.  Ideally, they’ll be able to apply that control to other situations too, especially ones that can be even more emotionally charged than a simple game (like when a toy is taken away, or it is time to leave a playdate).  


Vocabulary Booster

Like the game you can do with Going on a Bear Hunt, this is a superb vocabulary booster.  Sophisticated concepts are reinforced through play when you do the game:

A few examples of high-level thinking you can practice are:



Are they older than you?  

Do they have longer hair than you?



Are you thinking of an herbivore?

Does it lay eggs?

Is it extinct?



Is their home on the East Coast?

Do they live in the same state we do?

Are they in our borough?


Learn About Process of Elimination

In my 20s, to support my acting habit, I worked as a tutor.  Primarily, my clients were kids who were testing to get into specialized high schools or private middle schools.  Part of the gauntlet to get into these schools in New York is to take an hours-long standardized test.  These tests have acronyms like, SHSAT or ISEE and the the prep books are as big as phone books.    


Although kids are bombarded with testing from such an early grade, this is still a daunting process.   Although, some of my students were well-versed in sophisticated test-taking skills, others needed to work on testing strategy.   I found myself teaching “process of elimination” more than anything else.    


For this reason, I also love 20 Questions, since it allows kids to find the “Yes” simply by knowing all the “Nos”.  By stripping away all of what something isn’t (not a relative, not older than me, not living in New York…must be my friend in California!) they will come to what it is.  


If they get deft enough at this kind of logic through play it will be no big deal when they sit down at a scantron with a number 2 pencil to employ this same reasoning.


Detective Stuff is Fun


Finally, and most importantly, detective stuff is fun!  Kids love investigating, gathering evidence and finding out the truth!  Treat your versions of 20 questions as if you were a detective and kids will have an even greater desire to play!  


Read some old-school detective books or get into a series, these mysteries are great kid literature! Some of my favorites are: The Fantastic Five, The Bobbsey Twins, The Boxcar Children, Harriet the Spy and Nate the Great, just to name a few.  These kid detectives have great personality, courage and moxie!


By using dynamic kid-sleuths as inspiration, kids will crave playing 20 questions.


Here is a game that I love: it is the Mystery Deck from Mindware (I’m not paid to tell you about this – I just do think this is a great product).  Here’s my explanation of what it is a why it is a great companion for this kind of mental work!    




So, there you have it, 20 Questions builds up the brain through play – and helps kids sit still when they have to!  


Guess WHAT game I’m about to play?


*Costa, Arthur L., and Bena Kallick. Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. ASCD, 2008.

*Gross-Loh, C. (2016, December 16). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/