Games in the Classroom


It goes without saying that in the world of STEM education, games are a huge part of the curriculum. Many people don’t realize just how educational games can be and how to repurpose these activities into lessons students’ can use in life. Here’s one game inventor’s perspective on the value of games, learning and having fun in our schools.  

We’re game inventors. And as much as we hate to admit it to an audience of teachers, the last thing we think about when developing a game is “the educational value” of it. Instead, we think, what will make kids (young and old) instantly love it.

Ten years ago, my business partner and I challenged ourselves to come up with a new dice game. To our surprise and delight, our game, was a hit. Soon after we introduced it, a teacher raved about its educational value. Steve and I looked at each other and basically said, “Huh, imagine that.” We thought we had created a game that was simple, fast and fun, but as the game gained in popularity, more and more teachers told us about the many benefits our game brought to their classrooms such as eye-hand coordination, quick decision-making and subitizing. (We never even knew there was such a thing as subitizing.) By seeing our game through a teacher’s eyes, we realized that all games have educational value to one degree or another.

To that end, we’ve categorized five distinct values that games (we’re most interested in non-electronic games) bring to the classroom and we’ve broken those five values down to more specific educational benefits. Keep in mind that this list is hardly complete. There are many more benefits games provide students and, as we said, every game brings some sort of value to the classroom, you just need to look for it. At the end we’ve listed some of the more popular tabletop games and the learning value of each.

1. The Intellectual Value of Games

This is probably the area that is of most interest to teachers and the one that teachers can most easily reference in order to justify to their administrators why their students are playing games at school.

Whether it’s reading directions, listening to directions, or following directions, games enhance students’ language skills including reading, vocabulary and comprehension. Additionally, following the rules of any game helps attention span, problem-solving and strategic thinking. Let’s take the board game, Clue, for instance. That classic game is all about deductive reasoning. Players are given a limited amount of information and, over time, have to piece together the “evidence” to form a complete picture. There’s a whole lot of problem-solving going on in that game.

STEM skills are also nurtured through gameplay. Whether it’s a game like Orbitz that involves pattern recognition or Mastermind, the oldie-but-goodie that challenges kids in code-making and code-breaking, or Lego, arguably the world’s favorite building game, today’s toy store shelves are a never-ending source for STEM learning while playing. And many STEM games have varying degrees of difficulty which helps prevent boredom and broadens their appeal to many age levels.

Speaking of STEM, we just did a Google search on “board games for science” and a slew of fun, educational and even edgy games popped up. Clearly, these days, science and fun go together well.

2. The Emotional Value of Games

Beyond intellectual value, games help students develop emotionally as well. Games help kids mature through: building self-esteem, managing risk, being patient and disciplined, easing anxiety and strengthening resilience. Let’s just take easing anxiety as one example. When a child is playing a board game, it gives them a short respite from the social pressures of the real world. And, depending on the game, it has the potential to create a more even playing field.

A 15-minute search on the Internet will help you identify a bevy of tabletop games that can help your students develop emotionally. And if you debrief with your class after the game, no doubt you’ll discover a variety of other emotional benefits. (Try searching: Board games that help EQ)

3. The Social Value of Games

Related to emotional value is social value. Games by their very nature are social. You’re either communicating with others, cooperating with others or competing with others…and often times you’re doing all three in the very same game.

When we test out a new game we’re often asked, “Well what would prevent someone from cheating?” Our simple answer is “nothing.” Or with tongue-in-cheek say, “Get better friends.” Regardless, honesty is social currency and it’s at the heart of all games (with the exception of bluffing games). Any player who is caught cheating at a board game will, no doubt, garner some “feedback” from the other players.

Games also foster social skills such as: negotiation (Monopoly, Settlers of Catan), teamwork (Codenames, Say the Word), organization (Animal Logic, Quiddler), and of course sportsmanship (all games).

4. The Creative Value of Games

Virtually every board game has rules and regulations, which is great for developing discipline, but doesn’t do much for creativity. But not to worry. There are plenty of games that can cultivate the right hemisphere of the brain as well. For example, Pickles to Penguins is ideal for improving lateral thinking because players have to quickly find some sort of connection between disparate objects. (What do a raccoon and a tennis racquet have in common?) And, of course, there’s always Rory’s Story Cubes whereby players roll dice that have images on them and have to create an impromptu story based on the images that are shown. If that’s not enough, you can always turn to Charades the ever-popular parlor game.

5.The Physical Value of Games

The last category worth mentioning is games that help students improve their physical acumen including balance, quick reflexes, fine motor skills and eye hand coordination. As you would suspect, there’s no shortage of options here. Jenga is a classic, of course, but there’s plenty of others and a little time on Google (Search: board games that help physical activity) will turn up plenty of options. One we recently discovered, but haven’t played yet is Jungle Jive, which boosts your students’ balance, flexibility and coordination.

A sampling of board game and their educational value:

  • Axis and Allies: logic, economics, logistics, probability
  • Battleship: grid familiarity, attention to detail, record keeping, pattern recognition, deductive reasoning
  • Blokus: geometric visualization, abstract reasoning
  • Boggle: spelling, vocabulary, observation
  • Busytown: cooperation, observation, memory
  • Camel Up: deductive reasoning, managing resources
  • Carcassonne: resource management
  • Clue: deductive reasoning (critical thinking), research skills, story and plot development
  • Connect Four: simple logic, deduction, cognitive development
  • Guess Who?: logic, memory
  • Jenga: hand-eye coordination, spatial thinking, geometry, architecture, construction
  • Monopoly: negotiation, risk-management
  • Operation: fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, anatomy, patience
  • Qwirkle: strategy, visions, logic, color & pattern recognition, sequencing
  • Risk: basic geography, diplomacy, world history
  • Scrabble: spelling, vocabulary, strategic placement, arithmetic
  • 6 Nimmt!: pragmatism, strategy
  • Settlers of Catan: strategy and planning, creating a narrative, emotional intelligence
  • Sorry: patience, sportsmanship
  • Spot it: observation, quick decision making
  • Sushi Go: probability, strategic thinking, visual discrimination
  • Ticket to Ride: US geography, strategy
  • Trivial Pursuit: general knowledge, subject area knowledge, memory, anticipating questions
  • Twister: physical flexibility, strength, endurance
  • Wits & Wagers: general knowledge, risk-management
  • Yahtzee: risk-management, probability, addition, strategy

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