Sunday, August 24, 2014

How Board Games Help People Learn

by Jesse Broderick-Sokol


The following report is part of a school project completed by one of our young customers. We are proud to have a hand in inspiring the next generation of gamers, and are sharing his work (with his permission) to spread the message of the value of games in education. Great job on this report, Jesse!


“I’ve only seen positive effects with non-electronic board games” (Kathleen Donahue, Interview, 3/29/14). Kathleen is a game shop owner who observes and works with kids. She has first-hand experience with and can observe the skills that board games teach. Board games teach a wide variety of necessary skills. The skills taught are both cognitive skills and social skills. For example, board games teach skills that are needed for decision-making and skills that are necessary for negotiation. Board games also teach people how to apply the skills they learned, which allows them to use the skills to their full benefit. In class, board games are engaging and fun learning tools. Board games help their players learn in numerous ways and help them improve upon a wide variety of skills.

There are many definitions of board games. One definition is a game that focuses mainly on a physical board, and there is also a broader definition that fits all non-electronic games. The second definition also excludes games like tag and dodge ball that are basically sports. For example, card games, dice games, and games that are similar to Jenga, are included in the second definition, while tag and sardines are not. In order to include many games that have the same benefits, but don’t use an actual board, the second definition will be used. A few sources used activities that focused around the building blocks of games, however those are the things that cause the benefits.

Board games teach complicated mental skills such as accurately making decisions, brainstorming, planning how to solve a problem, and assessing when to take risks (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities Through Games). Many games can teach reasoning, re-evaluating old information to accommodate new information, making observations, the consequences of making mistakes, and predicting results. “They [players] learn strategic thinking, and are better problem solvers” (Kathleen Donahue, Interview, 3/29/14). For example, predicting the result of a certain dice roll in a game teaches players how to use probability mathematics. Realizing that someone has a certain object that you thought someone else had, and then changing what you were going to do based on that knowledge, is an example of re-evaluating old information to accommodate new information. In one study, kids who played games based on reasoning for 16 hours over eight weeks, at least twice a week, scored 30% higher on quizzes about reasoning (Ingrid Wickelgreen, Scientific American, Brain Games Aim to Make Kids Smarter). Board games teach planning and accurately making decisions, both of which are very important skills.

Linear number games can help kids learn numbers and build numerical skills. Some of the skills the games improve and build upon are mathematical thinking, counting with one to one correspondence, and subitizing, which is recognizing small numbers without having to count them out (Judy Ballweg, Math At Play, The Benefits of Board Games). In linear number games such as Chutes and Ladders, the players can simply see and observe that some numbers are larger than others and have those numbers imprinted in their memory. Linear games also help with acquiring a spatial understanding of numbers, estimating, and performing simple operations like splitting cards or moving tokens (Judy Ballweg, Math At Play, The Benefits of Board Games). By playing games, players practice simple operations and estimate values to make the games easier on themselves. In one study, playing linear number board games reduced the numbers of errors the players had in number line estimation, and also increased the amount of numbers they were able to correctly identify (Robert S. Siegler and Geetha B. Ramani, Developmental Psychology Learning From Number Board Games: You Learn What You Encode). Being able to understand and manipulate numbers is a vital skill for performing well in school. Since playing linear number games helps learn numbers, adding linear number games to classrooms would help kids learn numbers.


Board games do not just teach numerical information. The games can be reconfigured to teach any kind of specific information. Board games are also a good place to practice and develop (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). The rules of the games are flexible and can be changed to fit the needs of the players, as long as everyone is fine with that (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). On their own people learn skills best by practicing them, and board games are a good place to practice. For example, in many games an action will occur many times, so players can hone their skills. Board games are an open-ended way of teaching. Knowing how to use and apply skills is vital for accessing the full potential of the skills.

Board games make learning much more fun and engaging. They create competitive and/or collaborative situations, which makes the game engaging and possibly less stressful (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). For example, when one player can rely on another for help and feel that they have support, the game is less pressured. Since the board games are interactive, they are engaging because the game responds to the players choices and allows them to have a sense that their decisions cause change and control of their own experience (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). Games are active learning, which makes players curious about board games and interested in them, which promotes competition and enthusiasm for the game. “When people are having fun, they are more open to learning.” (Kathleen Donahue, Interview, 3/29/14).

Playing board games even has some minor, though still meaningful, health benefits. For example, playing bridge increases amounts of white blood cells, which fight off diseases (Siski Green, Saga, Playing Games for Health). Some specific games improve attention and can help people deal with ADHD, dyscalculia, and dementia (Ingrid Wickelgreen, Scientific American, Brain Games Aim to Make Kids Smarter). Having a good state of health is necessary for learning.

Board games teach social skills as well as cognitive ones. Some of the social skills board games teach are compromising, dealing with disappointment and frustration, following rules, and letting others take turns (Karen Belsley Pratt, Charles River School, All I Really Need To Know I Learned Playing Board Games; Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games; Judy Ballweg, Math at Play The Benefits of Board Games). Board games also teach patience, using what is given and not complaining, making decisions on moral problems, exhibiting appropriate behaviors, and persistence (Judy Ballweg, Math At Play, The Benefits of Board Games; Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). Some games promote organization by making the game easier for players who keep their stuff neat. It is likely people will talk to others about the game, which promotes reflection. All of these skills are mainly taught through interactions with other players (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). Because many of these skills are part of working with others, playing games allows you to practice those skills. Those skills are needed to promote your own self-advocacy, which helps people address their problems with learning.

Board games can be a motivating and engaging addition to regular curriculum. Engagement drives students to solve the challenges in the games, which is something they may not attempt in schoolwork. Students complain about homework and in-class assignments and might much rather play a seemingly leisurely game, which promotes beneficial effects and social interactions. Games are easy learning tools because the students feel that they are getting a break and not being stuck in class (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). Making learning engaging prompts students to devote their time and attention to understanding the material.

In conclusion, playing games teaches mental skills, numerical knowledge, and social skills. Games also adapt to people’s learning style and provide hands on experience which teaches the user how to apply their skills. Playing the games increases health in minor, though still credible ways. Some people say that playing board games in class takes too much time and may not teach specific knowledge (Laura A. Sharp, Journal of Instructional Research, Unexpected Learning Opportunities through Games). That is true, but board games can actually teach that specific knowledge, and if not the skills they teach are far more important. Board games can also be shortened to fit the available time in the classroom. So adding board games to learning curriculum in moderation is helpful and should be considered as a viable option.


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