Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Games for Learning

 Reinforce Lessons, Inspire Curiosity

Do not…keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.”


The apparent drudgery of schoolwork – even online as a result of America’s hellscape response to the covid-19 pandemic – reminds me of the important role games play in learning...one often overlooked in the official academic bureaucracy of standards of learning, state-endorsed policies, and administrative procedures. Our full-time online distance learning school year began toward the end of August; already the lament of “Why do I need to learn this?” has begun. As dad I get to supervise academic activity and enforce schedules, deadlines, and long-term projects, sort of an unpaid proxy teacher’s aid. It took about three weeks for the lessons to ramp up to something approximating full-steam, with two or three online class meets per day, a host of online exercises and resources (some game-like), and lots of prodding to stay on target academically within the lax environment of one’s own home. This year’s teacher impressed us with his ability to port his live classroom experience to an online format; though we regret our son can’t really enjoy this first-hand in a traditional classroom environment. Nonetheless I still wish schools integrated more games for learning to reinforce lessons and inspire curiosity beyond the bounds of even a virtual classroom.

In past years I’ve seen what passes for educational “games” in the schools: tedious math exercises with dice and tables or generally uninspiring procedurals with little player choice, few competitive or tangible goals (beyond answering questions correctly), and no inspiration or engagement. They seem like games because they employ game elements (usually dice and pawns) but without some engaging thematic elements, interactive mechanics, and a goal beyond simply hammering facts into young brains they’re simply schoolwork in sheep’s clothing. Certainly school lessons provide the necessary foundational learning. All students must master essential skills. Yet they don’t always see the practical, real-life applications when the flood of schoolwork seems meaningless and overwhelming. Games help reinforce learned knowledge in practical and fun ways.

I recently wrote about my attempt to create a game to help reinforce my son’s multiplication skills for math class. Although the main movement mechanic on its own looks like a basic math exercise with dice, it serves as the method for moving along a course through the solar system in a competitive race. It merges practical classroom skills with a theme (the solar system) and a goal (to win the race), engaging participants at a deeper level than the mere academic.

Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”

Fred Rogers

Games cannot replace basic academic instruction, but they can reinforce reading, math, and communication skills as well as other subjects tied to the theme (such as history or geography). They offer students an opportunity to exercise their general academic and intellectual skills, particularly their ability to process information, make decisions, and analyze the results for future moves. With proper guidance they can foster further discussion tied to academic subjects or the analytical thought process. Enthusiasm from positive game experiences can kindle curiosity about thematic subjects and lead to further enrichment. Games teach kids numerous other skills, too:

Follow Directions: Whether reading game instructions on their own or following an explanation from an adult, kids must learn a game’s goals and rules and then demonstrate their understanding during play. Families playing a game for the first time participate in a collaborative learning experience where everyone’s working together to figure out the game, both the basic instructions and the strategies needed to win. Just as adults can remind kids of rules or advantages they might take, so can kids step up and remind others, proving their familiarity with the rules and giving them confidence to offer assistance.

Work toward A Goal: Whether playing a cooperative or competitive game, kids learn what they must do to win. They gain a basic sense of this while learning the rules, as most instructions clearly state the victory conditions up front. Attaining this, however requires a solid knowledge not just of what to do each turn, but how to use the game situation to their best advantage moving closer to that goal. Competitive games emphasize conflict between players and foster a sense of fair play, accepting victories and defeats with grace. Cooperative games focus on all players working together to pool their resources and use their individual strengths to overcome challenges.

Evaluation & Decision: A game’s constantly changing state encourages kids to analyze situations, weigh the risk of possible actions, and make choices. They must keep track of their own position and resources within the game as well as those of other players (as well as their possible intentions that might interfere with their own plans to win). To do this successfully they must figure out how interrelated rules can hep them, understand game resources, and react to the results of their decision and the actions of other players.

Safe-to-Fail Environment: As a playful activity games provide an environment in which failure has few real-world consequences. Players can take their time understanding the rules, learning from mistakes, and trying different approaches toward victory, all without worry. Sure, there’s the stigma of experiencing setbacks and outright losing the game; these, too, serve as teaching moments in dealing with adversity and failure in a situation without real ramifications. This safe environment encourages risk-taking and explorations of different strategies.

Given these numerous benefits, most any board game one can teach kids has benefits reinforcing academic skills. Even games with amazingly limited player choice like Candyland and Monopoly impart the basics of turn-taking and following directions, if not a good deal of math (in the case of Monopoly). Using reviews as well as the number of players and length of play time can help select games for kids; in this regard BoardGameGeek.com serves as an extremely informative resource. Although board games seem the easiest tools to use with kids, roleplaying games engage more skills than more rigid board games. In games where “anything can be attempted,” kids engage their imaginations and storytelling abilities along with writing, math, and social skills. Despite their greater depth and time commitment (as well as the general stigma some still associate with them), roleplaying games engage academic skills more thoroughly. Off the top of my head I’d recommend two right off for use with an adult guide/gamemaster: Hero Kids and Risus: The Anything RPG (which you can port to whatever setting with which your particular group of kids identifies most.).

It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

Fred Rogers

Adults remain a key element for using games for learning. They know their intended audience and what games might work best to reinforce different skills for them. Adults don’t have to be certified teachers, of course, but they should exert some guidance in selecting and navigating suitable games. I wouldn’t expect most students to learn game rules quickly and well enough to teach their peers, though that’s a good exercise on its own (and some games lend themselves more to this than others). Adult guidance can help maintain focus on the game, maintain an orderly atmosphere conducive to learning, and point out opportunities for learning from the experience, whether actual classroom knowledge or other practical skills.

I’m hoping in the near future to look over games in my collection and those currently commercially available to compile a list of suitable games for learning; though bear in mind most adults have the capacity to judge both what’s suitable for kids to play and what’s useful to reinforce learned skills. Until then, look at games with a playful mind and an eye for finding teachable lessons in all things.

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Postscript: Although our weekly game nights have fallen by the wayside, I’m already getting a sense they may return given the dearth of active engagement from more than seven months of pandemic precautions. I’ve gotten back in the habit of reading a few pages of The Hobbit to my son each night at bedtime, so he’s getting more interested in all things Tolkein. This past week I pulled out Reiner Knizia’s The Hobbit board game from Fantasy Flight Games (released in 2010, before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings “prequel” trilogy of Hobbit films in 2012-2014). We enjoyed the journey to the Lonely Mountain and undertaking the adventures along the way. My son quickly understood the tactical implications of game rules so he could use them to his advantage and – while we all succeeded in defeating Smaug – my son ultimately won by overcoming more challenges and therefore winning the most treasure. We enjoyed a family activity together, learned the rules as we progressed, and took pride in our individual victories in an overall positive experience. The analog game also pried us away from our usual electronic addictions, whether playing games on the tablet, surfing the interwebzes, or watching the news.

Games give you a chance to excel, and if you’re playing in good company you don’t even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game.”

Gary Gygax


  1. I find board games do a better job at teaching, or at least offering an easy platform to teach, things like math, history, and aspects of sequential timing and reading. Roleplaying games offer a different aspect, such as social interaction, imaginative cognizance, and problem solving along with success and failure understanding.

    Use BOTH types of games for a more thorough teaching aspect.

  2. I certainly agree, Grimace. More kinds of games can offer a much more well-rounded experience.


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