It’s no secret; we’re huge fans of using games to help with education and socialising.

This is why we love them as teaching tools!

#1 Games are powerful teaching tools because they’re fun, not because they’re educational

There’s no need to try and make a game ‘educational’, or overemphasise what they can teach. Choose games wisely, play normally, spot teachable moments, and trust that kids will be learning.

Many other activities also have similar educational benefits – we would never suggest gaming is the only way to learn, or even the best when compared to some of the educational interventions school provides. But what makes gaming unique is the almost-universal motivation to take part. Kids become actively involved in their own learning.

#2 There’s so much to choose from – you can find almost any combination of themes and skills!

The theme of the game might not be the thing you really want to teach, even though it looks like it is.

Take Scrabble as an example. Scrabble is not a word game. It’s a memory game. You win by memorising as much of the dictionary as possible. You don’t need to have any understanding of any of the words and it doesn’t improve spelling.

Genuine word games are things like Jask, Just One, Head Hackers, Codenames, and even Dixit – games that make you interact with words, where you’re actively engaging with the meaning of the words and searching for multiple interpretations and perspectives.

And Monopoly isn’t really a game that teaches anything about economics (other than how unfair it can be), if anything it’s a lesson in luck and probability. Games about economics mimic how resources can be traded for other resources, sometimes more profitably than others, like Century: Spice Road, Splendor, Power Grid, or Terraforming Mars.

#3 Games can introduce new concepts and skills

Heavily thematic games that have been well thought out provide an opportunity to learn some basic concepts of a huge range of subjects. I knew nothing about how anyone created atomic bombs before I played The Manhattan Project, and nothing about traditional wine making until Viticulture. Now I’m hardly an expert in either field, but this general background knowledge about grapes and ‘yellow cake’ opens up some new concepts that – according to research on learning – will make it easier to learn about actual wine production.

You could do it the other way round – teach the abstract concepts and then use games to reinforce that – but it’s better to have a practical, experiential encounter with the topic of the curriculum first, and then there’s something to ‘hang’ the more abstract learning onto.

For example, with our new Geek Room, we’re beginning with a month of games that introduce concepts about probability. Probability is a pretty abstract concept, and the general misinformation about the dangers of coronavirus show statistics and probability isn’t particularly well understood. The idea that you can manipulate probabilities in your favour is even more difficult to comprehend.

However, the idea that you can add an extra card to your deck, and you find you can ‘pull’ that card more often and having more success… that’s providing the foundation to learn about probability in a more formal setting.

#4 Games reinforce information from other places

Timeline is a great game. You have a few cards of inventions and discoveries, and you guess where they fit in the timeline you (and the other players) are creating. Cytosis is a great game for teaching the concept of how cells work, and throws in the language that GCSE students are expected to know. Terraforming Mars is a fantastic science-based simulation which blurs the boundary between science fiction and current thinking about how we could sustain human life on Mars.

And thanks to ‘spacing’ (as educational psychologists would call it), these games help to reinforce information that has been learnt elsewhere. It’s typically thought the best way to commit something into the long term memory is to repeatedly bring it to mind several times, over days or weeks.

If your child is learning about British History, then having a game of Brain Box: Kings and Queens every few days will be a great way to reinforce what they’ve already learnt.

#5 Developing skills, not learning facts, is the strength of games

We often think ‘educational’ means the content of the game has to teach us something new – and as we’ve seen above, there are some great examples of games that do that.

But the real strength of games is in developing skills – because the skills are reinforced across multiple games. What skills? Well, that’s a series of posts in itself. But let’s briefly take a few:

  • Problem solving – some games, like the Unlock series, are based entirely around this premise.
  • Strategizing – the more choices you have on your turn in a game, generally, the more complex it is and the greater strategy that’s required. There aren’t many games that have more choices than Civilization, but even Outfoxed (aimed at 5 year olds) has genuine, non-luck based choices to make.
  • Teaching new vocabulary, which improves comprehension, which improves reading, which improves… everything.
  • Logical sequences – which set children up for engaging in programming and maths – are integral to most games, but we think worker placement games are particularly good for that. These are games where you take an action (often by placing a ‘worker’ on a space on the board), which gives you a resource.
  • Recognising patterns – another key skill for maths. It doesn’t matter if it’s matching colours, or working through a hidden maze, many games involve patterns and repetition. Lovelace and Babbage is one good example though.
  • Developing working memory – any game that has you hold multiple pieces of information in your head at once helps with this. Who has what card again? What order did I want to take my actions in?
  • Deduction – the idea that you can work something out – or limit the options – with the information you’ve got. Who’s the Werewolf? Where’s Dracula hiding? What card is someone holding?

#6 Activating multiple skills at one.

Games often use multiple skills at the same time. Games that require maths often have cards with new vocabulary to read. Games that involve story telling still have points to add at the end. Cooperative games that are really about probability still require the use of strategy, conversation, and cooperation – and the ability to be persuasive. When choosing games you can also think about what secondary skills are being activated.

#7 Use the tools you already possess

We don’t even need to say this. Teaching has always been an art form. It’s always been more about the well-timed question and appropriate affirmation than lesson plans.

When playing games purely as a hobby a lot goes unsaid. In an educational environment, encouraging overt reflection on the state of the game, and asking multiple perspectives about what’s happening now and what’s happening next, and explicitly pointing to the reason for playing the game, will all help to get more from the game while keeping it fun.

Despite all this, in a classroom environment, using games can be tough. We have some ideas on how to overcome some practical issues in our next post.