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As educators consider how best to teach in a high-tech world, there is the risk of overlooking one of the most effective low-cost, low-tech teaching strategies: board games. Yes, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, Risk, Boggle, and other such games not only offer the potential for learning; they actually have multiple advantages over technology and lecturing. They engage students with each other rather than with a device. They can expand vocabulary and improve maths skills and, perhaps most importantly, they often require cooperation, risk-taking and collaboration – skills that students need in many facets of their lives.
In recent years, digital and virtual games have become an important part of the teaching landscape. Beyond simply improving students’ hand-eye coordination, they can prepare them for a complicated world and a job market that will continue to require increasing interactions with technology. However, the inclusion of ‘virtual worlds’ as part of the learning environment also has a unique set of disadvantages. First, students with greater access to video games have a distinct advantage over those who don’t, and this often comes down to whether the school or the students’ families can afford the new technology. Even for students who do have these advantages, overuse of technology can mean that they fail to learn how to interact with other people in a positive way because they are too engaged in their virtual world. Similarly, students who don’t succeed in a virtual world can become discouraged or apathetic.
In contrast to the disadvantages of gaming technology, the reasons for incorporating board games into the curriculum are many; and first and foremost, they are fun! Students can be introduced to board games in such a way that they play (and learn) because they want to – not because they have to.
Of course, in the educational setting, there also needs to be some link to the curriculum. Board games can be especially effective for honing maths skills, for example. Charlotte Davies, education consultant for Fit 2 Learn, recommends Chinese Chequers, Chess, Triominos, Pentago, and even the Rubik’s Cube, for maths. In terms of cognitive skills development, she says, “The list is endless – Boggle, Memory, Tricky Fingers, Q Bitz, Origami.” She recommends Settlers of Catan for teaching students basic economic principles. Players must obtain resources – coal, lumber, brick, sheep, or wheat – to develop villages, roads, networks, and cities in a new settlement.
David Barlex, former senior lecturer in education at Brunel University, values board games so much that he has created some that can be applied in a number of curriculum subjects such as citizenship, geography, ICT, science, and design and technology. His Change of Place game is an adaptation of Snakes and Ladders. Barlex explains, “This game is concerned with designing cities of the future. It’s not an exercise in fantasy, but is linked strongly to the findings of the Foresight Report on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems. The aim of the game is to help students think about past, present and future presumptions.”
Barlex also designed Take Shape. He says, “Take Shape enables students to learn about the complex causes of obesity in our society, to consider how problems associated with obesity might be tackled and to make suggestions to key stakeholders as to their roles in developing solutions. The learning is situated within the citizenship curriculum.”
A number of educators have studied the use of board games in schools. Dr. Elizabeth Treher, researcher and co-founder of The Learning Key, a company built with the purpose of ‘Transforming Learning into Action’ describes the approach as an important and effective way to learn through engagement. Simply addressing a group of students and presenting material, no matter how well, may fail if young people aren’t interested in the subject, have their mind on other things, or are easily distracted. The challenge for educators is to engage them so that they are fully present.
Far beyond the learning of academic principles, board games play a much more important – and often undervalued – role in the development of social skills. The person to person interaction in board games cannot be replaced by digital games or individual learning. Some games require interpreting the facial expression of opponents, collaborating on a strategy with teammates, or analysing why a particular action did or didn’t lead to success.
Yes, games are about winning – but there’s far more to them. Through game play, students can learn valuable lessons while also coming to understand one of the most important lessons of all: winning isn’t everything. In fact, the end result is actually far less important than the enjoyable – and educational – journey that has taken place.
12 Board games for learning
ACQUIRE – In this stock market game, accumulating the right stocks and the most money requires skill and planning, helping with economic and financial education.
BANANAGRAMS – This game supports the English curriculum. Players use letter tiles to build words in a grid in front of them, continuing to pick up tiles and add them to their crossword until all tiles are gone.
BOGGLE – Players are required to find words in the allotted time using the letters in front of the group. Whoever finds the most words is declared the winner of this game, which involves both verbal skills and speed. Great for supporting English.
CHESS – Chess requires concentration, strategy and patience. It has also been shown to improve maths ability.
CONTRACEPTION – This controversial game can be used for sex education and involves testing students on their knowledge of sexual intercourse, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy, even providing the opportunity to forcefully decline sex.
MONEY MARATHON – Developed by MyBnk, this game uses dice and interactive activities and quizzes to teach financial and economic principles.
MONOPOLY – this game supports both maths and economics by combining elements of chance and skill as players move around the board making choices about purchasing, trading, and improving property and income.
ROMANS – A novel approach to learning the history of the Romans, where players are taken through the Roman Empire, conquering garrison forts and attempting to gain the title of Caesar.
SCATTERGORIES – Choices of items that fall into a specific category are subject to the agreement of other players as to whether they are appropriate or not. Nothing is absolute except the diplomatic communication skills, and critical reasoning, developed.
SETTLERS OF CATAN – Players move into a developing world where having the right combination of products to develop villages, roads, networks, and cities is crucial. Players can deal directly with each other to improve their position. This supports the citizenship curriculum by teaching economic principles and different government strategies.
TABOO – Teams try to guess words by describing them without using the taboo words listed on the cards. Can be used to enhance English language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT – One team reads out trivia questions from cards, while the other team tries to guess the answer. This covers a wide range of subjects in the curriculum, including geography, history, science, and art.
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