word play

We all want to keep our minds sharp. Experts tell us to eat fish, stay hydrated, exercise, and get enough quality sleep. But here’s a fun fact – you can boost mental agility and cognition by playing word games!

Try solving the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Play word games on your smartphone while waiting in the doctor’s office. Turn the television off after dinner and break out the board games for a little cerebral fun.

“Use it or lose it,” as the saying goes. By simply sitting down to focus on a word game or crossword puzzle, you are helping to boost word retrieval, expand your vocabulary, and stay mentally alert and active. Word games also improve problem-solving skills, enhance concentration and relieve stress!

History of the Crossword Puzzle
The first crossword puzzle was published in the New York World newspaper in 1913. The paper’s editor had asked journalist Arthur Wynne to invent a new word game to include in the Sunday entertainment section. The first puzzle, published on December 21st of that year, was called Word Cross and designed in a diamond shape. Over the next 20 years, the new word game puzzle gained popularity in newspapers across the U.S.

The New York Times was the last major daily newspaper to offer a crossword puzzle. Margaret Farrar, the first New York Times crossword editor proposed including a crossword puzzle as a welcome distraction for readers shortly after the U.S. entered into World War II. She reportedly sent a note to the Sunday editor ending with the heartfelt statement, “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.” The first New York Times crossword appeared in their Sunday magazine on February 15, 1942.

Humble Beginnings
Perhaps you prefer a competitive game of Scrabble. The original idea for this ubiquitous word game arose during the Great Depression. An unemployed architect from Poughkeepsie, Alfred Mosher Butts, wanted to create a challenging word game that combined the elements of skill, strategy and chance. Originally called Lexiko and played with letter tiles only, Alfred kept refining the game during the 1930s and 1940s, adding a game board and changing the name to Criss-Cross Words. Unfortunately, game manufacturers were not interested.

Alfred then teamed up with entrepreneur James Brunot to design the version we know today. The name Scrabble was trademarked in 1948. Legend has it that the president of Macy’s department stores discovered the board game while on vacation in the early 1950s. Within a year, the game was sold in stores nationwide.

“I love Scrabble!” says Sandi Sacks, a social worker and lifelong learning advocate. “Playing board games is important for cognition when we try new challenges and strategies, and also to make social connections.” Sandi, a Westchester resident, adds, “Playing board games gives us a sense of accomplishment and it’s fun!” More word play games you may want to try include Blank Slate, Wordsmithery, Upwords, Boggle, and Quiddler.

There’s an App for That!
Word game apps for your smartphone provide the convenience and portability of boosting your brain power right in the palm of your hand. New versions of the popular game Words With Friends now include solo challenge events and lightning rounds. Sandi enjoys the social aspect of playing Words With Friends online with a group. “I also discovered a free app for a game called 7 Little Words which I’ve been playing a lot.”

More word games you can play on your phone include Wordscapes (combining crosswords and word search), Alphabear (a word strategy game), Four Letters (a timed word search) and, of course, the New York Times Crossword and Scrabble.

“Scrabble on the computer is unbelievable!” says Sandi. “It’s a great way to learn strategies when the computer shows you the best words you could have made with your letters to score more points. So you are playing, and having fun and learning – which is fantastic!”

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