Parents and educators sometimes forget that games are some of the best teaching tools that exist. While no widely agreed-upon definition of game exists, to me a “game”, in its most primitive form, is a teaching tool. Ancient societies used games to teach essential skills to their youth; many of these early games may have focused on developing hand-eye coordination critical for hunting, fighting, or weaving. Games are interactive, multi-sensory, engaging, and often fun. This is why humans have been using games to teach children for millennia.
Yet in our modern times in which we focus heavily on standardization of learning (especially with the new Common Core Standards) and rote, memory based tasks, we seem to be moving away from and forgetting about the great power of games to teach critical reading, math, thinking, and life skills to students. Educators and parents, especially those struggling to reach disengaged or seemingly unmotivated learners, must remember that games can help students develop many types of skills, from social and interpersonal lessons of cooperation and teamwork to math operations, problem-solving skills, and early literacy development.
I especially like to use games with younger students and find them to be some of the most effective learning tools that exist. Children enjoy the very idea of playing a game; whether it’s rolling dice, picking cards, moving pieces across a board, earning points, moving one’s body, or placing tiles in spaces, the various aspects of playing a game are exciting and interactive. Games require the use of many modalities: players have to manipulate physical parts and pieces, communicate with other players, record data and/or scores, mentally solve problems, and visually keep track of players’ progress, to name a few. I commonly use simple board, card, and dice games to teach and reinforce elementary math concepts and phonics skills; children often become so engaged in the game that they forget that they are learning!
In fact, I do have one very clever 2nd grader who figured out my ploy and recently said to me, “I see what we’re doing. We’re playing a game but we’re still learning reading.” Nothing gets by this one, and how right he was! I asked him if he still thought the game was fun and wanted to continue playing, and he replied in the affirmative!
Many learning games are quick and easy to make up or put together using common household items such as flash cards, dice, a deck of cards, dominoes, paper and pencils. It is simple and easy to turn a boring, rote task, such as memorizing multiplication tables, into a fun and exciting game that will teach and reinforce the same skills. For example, I turn memorizing times tables into the popular game of War by using multiplication flashcards instead of a deck of traditional cards. Here are two websites with additional game ideas to get you started:
While I also like to recommend computer-based educational games for parents to encourage students to play instead of, say, watching TV, one of my favorite aspects of simple, non-computer based games is that they require us to unplug from technology and learn, connect, and have fun in a simpler and more hands-on way.
There are countless word, letter, number, and problem-solving games that will help students acquire essential academic skills, and I imagine it is a lot easier for parents to get their children to sit down and play a game than to sit down and complete a worksheet. So now that summer is upon us, use the power of games to keep learning over break and all year long!