Entering Marbles: The Brain Store in Lincoln Square, visitors see a menagerie of toys including jumbo-sized erector sets, board games, puzzle books, coffee table trinkets and science kits.
Looking at these same items, Dr. Danny Park sees tools for developing tactile stimulation, visual cues, critical thinking, strategy development, hand-eye coordination, word skills and spatial reasoning.
This is what makes Marbles more than a toy store.
“We are not a game store,” explained Scott Brown, chief merchant at Marbles. “We sell products that are good for our customers’ brain health and well-being.”
Every product in the store is tested and reviewed by local clinicians including neurologists, psychologists and occupational therapists — dubbed by Marbles as “Brain Health Experts” — before they are put on the shelf.
“[Our staff] has no training in the medical field, so we ask experts who do have that background to give their opinions on if each product is valuable to our health, and what part of the brain is stimulated when you engage with the product,” Brown said.
He recently approached Dr. Park, a neurologist at Swedish Covenant Hospital, specifically for this purpose and set up a private screening of 10 products for him to evaluate.
“I have seen first-hand the value of challenging the mind and keeping it active, and reviewing the toys and games gave me the opportunity to share my expertise so others can also see the mental health benefits of these products,” Dr. Park said. “I also thought it was a lot of fun.”
The review session was informal and definitely a lot more fun than work. Brown and Dr. Park not only talked about each product, they played with them so they could get a better understanding of what the customer would experience. The products included a colorful twist on nesting blocks, strategy-based board games and word games.
At one point they played Dabble, a fast-paced, multi-dimensional word game, similar to Scrabble. After reading the instructions out loud, Brown started the timer and both players started arranging and rearranging their letter tiles on a five-tier tray. After a minute, both men were stuck, Dr. Park scratching his head examining the words, “grey,” “do” and “fit,” trying to visualize how they could intersect to form new and bigger words. He couldn’t help but laugh at being stumped, as Scrabble is one of his favorite games to play at home.
“I like Dabble because it is a challenging game that can be adapted to skill level, so you can play with adults, kids, or someone with cognitive decline,” Dr. Park said before scribbling down notes on how the game can activate the areas of the brain responsible for vocabulary, memory and problem-solving.
On the business end, Brown expects this game to be a popular one and has no doubt it will make the cut when it comes to deciding which games to feature in the store.
“We find that people who are good at word skills gravitate toward Scrabble, but we encourage them to try games like Dabble to vary their game ‘diet’ while staying within their comfort zone,” Brown said.
Dr. Park added that slight variations to familiar activities and games are very good for mental health.
“The brain is like other muscles in the body. If you lift weights in the same way all the time, your body gets used to it and the value of the exercise decreases,” Dr. Park said. “But minute changes in an activity — like adding a time and dimension element to Scrabble — can activate different parts of the mind in the same region.”