Children are savage beasts, bless their little hearts. Like lion cubs, their claws can take out an eye, and their response can be one of nonchalance. So how do they learn not to claw others? Through play! I am not advocating playground scraps – it’s all too clear that some children are unfairly advantaged in that sphere. But where the rules are clear and agreed on, games, especially board games, teach many vital life and academic skills.
What do we want our children to learn? Maths, logic, literacy, spelling, general knowledge, communication, business skills and values such as fairness. For each of these educational outcomes (as well as others), there is at least one excellent boardgame.
Depending on the age-group being taught, even simple games like snakes and ladders teach maths, as learners have to add the numbers of the dice and move the counter correspondingly. There is no better game for logic than Mastermind. Once younger children have learned the basics, a teacher serious about logic can even introduce the concept of deductive logic and argument structures (“if X, then Y”). Criticality and ability to reason logically is possibly the best gift any teacher can give a student, for with this gift any problem can be unlocked. Literacy and spelling is learned from playing Scrabble, and a smart teacher will even let them “cheat” by using the dictionary – the desire to win will motivate them to perform this unthinkable act of research! Once they are adept at using dictionaries, have some fun by removing the dictionaries and letting older children browse thesauruses. It’ll be a bit hit-and-miss, but lots of fun, and learners will get to see how thesauruses actually work. General knowledge is easily tested with “Trivial Pursuit” and countless variations thereon. While not strictly a “board game”, communication can be practiced with games such as Charades (it forces the students to think carefully and quickly how they can communicate a concept to their peers using references that will be understood). It may be non-verbal, but it’s still language. The classic game for deloping an enterprising business spirit is Monopoly, and while it takes a fairly long time to play, it can be played on successive days if each child’s cards and money are kept in a named plastic folder, with a note to remember where their piece was on the board. In a trivial sense, all board games teach fairness, because they require turn-taking and abidance by agreed rules. Some games teach this more creatively, however. Try asking your students to do the “prisoner’s dilemma” in groups of four, and discuss the outcomes of that (for more information about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/prisoner-dilemma/).
Don’t declaw your little cubs by lulling them into stupified hybernation with dull teaching techniques. Sharpen their claws and teach them appropriate intellectual sparring with a bit of fun and games in the classroom.