Any good classroom game should engage and challenge students, while providing opportunities for skills and content development. Whilst games are often used by teachers as rewards for positive behaviours, they should not be seen simply as entertainments, but as alternative, enjoyable learning experiences.
There are many benefits to using games as part of a diverse pedagogy. Students find games motivating, non-threatening and experiential. They are also likely to receive immediate feedback on their performance and have the chance to develop social skills. For the teacher, they provide a fun way to broaden their repertoire and build relationships with students.
Although there is no shortage of information available for teachers wishing to add games to their classroom activities (try one of Edward de Bono’s books or a website like the Science Museum’s ‘onlinestuff’, for instance), this article will hopefully add a few new ideas to the list.
Puzzles such as crosswords, word finds and Sudoku have long been classroom staples, and they are fine as extra activities for quick finishers, or as vocabulary builders. (Teachers and students can also develop their own literacy, numeracy or content puzzles with the Discovery Channel’s ‘Puzzlemaker’.) Try starting the lesson with a couple of rebuses or Tony Ryan’s ‘Thinker’s Keys’ to kick-start student thinking, or challenge them with a quick game of charades based on the material being studied.
The greatest benefit of puzzle-based games is that they help to build critical thinking and problem solving skills. One game that does this in a team-based environment is called “Escape Kit”. It works like this:
Divide the group into pairs or small teams (of no more than four) and solicit for a selection of nouns; half a dozen objects that might fit in a school bag. Then draw on the board a jail cell with a little stick figure in it. This is the student, locked away for an undisclosed crime! To get home again, the student needs to somehow get through the single locked door, past the burly guard, and beyond a number of dangerous challenges. Examples of these might be a sheer cliff face, a ravenous lion, a river filled with piranhas, a pit with spikes, or a troll under a bridge. Draw the challenges on the board.
At this point, mention that help is at hand, because in a darkened corner of the jail cell is a bag containing a handful of objects, namely the things suggested earlier by the class. The students need to use these objects in creative ways to assist their escape. It is a wonderful thing to see a class of young people eagerly discussing, creating and describing a multitude of ways to solve the problem. Incidentally, this activity works just as well with six year olds as it does with teenagers, and it can be used as a terrific starter for writing adventure stories.
The “Escape Kit” game can also be developed as a board game, with card spaces along a pathway to mark the challenges and collections of perhaps thirty ‘dangers’ and fifty objects to randomly select from.
Students tend to enjoy playing board games like Monopoly or Scrabble in class, although principally as a distraction from more meaningful work. Although games such as these are quite useful in developing literacy and numeracy, and do encourage social interactions, it must be questioned as to whether the time they require to play is balanced by their educational value.
If students are developing their own games it is important to set them explicit design parameters. Experience suggests that without clear guidelines (a rubric, for instance), the hoped-for content will become secondary to the game’s presentation. Unless the aim is to create an art project based on the material being studied, there may be better ways of allowing the students to demonstrate their learning.
One board game that is highly effective, however, is Bingo. Students should be presented with a blank template that they complete with words (or numbers) selected from a list of perhaps forty options. Rather than simply announce these words, the teacher poses questions for which the students’ choices provide the answers. The questions can be content-based, mathematical, or a list of synonyms and antonyms. Although there is a degree of luck in determining the winner, the game does favour those students who know the most and therefore have the wider range of choices.
The Internet is awash with sites for ‘learning games’, and research suggests that digital game-play provides challenging, immersive and adaptive learning opportunities for tech-savvy youngsters. Sites such as Reading Eggs or Hotmaths are ideal for younger learners, whilst yourdictionary.com or nobelprize.org offer fun challenges for older students.
Furthermore, scholars such as James Gee have pointed out that many of today’s best-selling video games are paradigms of good learning: they are carefully crafted to give players regular ‘just-in-time’ information that allows them to continue their ‘education’ about a virtual world; they are designed to be neither too hard or too easy; and they increase in complexity as a reward for achievement. Games such as ‘Civilization’, ‘Oblivion’, or even the controversial ‘Grand Theft Auto’, offer players the opportunity to make complex strategic and ethical decisions that may not be possible elsewhere. According to Gee, modern educators can learn a great deal from studying successful game design.
Students willingly spend hours immersed in virtual worlds such as these. How might this interest be used in the classroom? Here are a few suggestions:
‘The Sims’ – Students keep diaries about their Sims’ exploits, or write detailed character pieces.
‘FIFA’ – Two players complete a short game while the other students keep notes about the match. Who scored and when? Was the game one-sided or evenly balanced? At the end of the match the players act as rival coaches and are interviewed by their classmates. Students then write detailed ‘match reports’ that include quotes from the ‘coaches’.
Walkthroughs – A reading task that provides immediate feedback. Present the student (or groups of students) with a complex in-game challenge, then give them the solution that they are to follow step-by-step.
Even relatively shy students can be coaxed from their shells during creative role-playing games, such as those played on the TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Challenge students to act out a scene using only questions or with dialogue statements using consecutive letters of the alphabet. Games like this encourage students to think carefully about their language choices, and help to develop word skills and critical thinking.
Students may also enjoy the ‘Interview Game’, wherein a crazy achievement is written on the board behind a volunteer who is not permitted to see what it is. (For example, the student has just spent a year living in a cave, or has become lead dancer in a ballet company.) The other group members then ‘interview’ the volunteer about their achievement, using thoughtful open questions, while the oblivious subject uses their imagination to give creative responses. The game ends when the achievement is guessed correctly. This game is a useful coaching tool in teaching students about asking guiding questions. Beyond the fun, the ‘Interview Game’ is actually a carefully constructed research task.
Finally, teachers may wish to create three sets of words for the ‘Mad Machine’ game. List #1 should be of adjectives (‘brown’ or ‘slippery’), list #2 of active verbs (‘jumping’ or ‘laughing’) and list #3 of nouns (‘blender’ or ‘chair’). Students then choose one random word from each list, so that they have a three word product; for example, a ‘slippery jumping chair’. The task is then for students to work out what the product does and present a marketing idea for it.
It is an astonishing truth that there is no workable definition for what a ‘game’ actually is. Although games have features in common, there is always an exception that proves the rule. The list of potential ‘educational games’ is therefore wide open to interpretation, and teachers should welcome this. There are endless opportunities for modern educators to introduce entertaining challenges that their happy students will embrace: the selection discussed above is merely a toe dipped in an ocean of possibilities.