Some Ideas and Thoughts on Board Games in the Classroom

My approach to using games is to look at them in same way that I look at the concept of educational technology.  There is often a misconception that educational technology refers to digital technology in the classroom, but if you spend some time looking at the literature you will find definitions that mention the design and enhancement of learning resources, processes, and instruction.  Board games can be used as a form of technology in the classroom, albeit in a non digital way that can provide powerful learning experiences that can tie into a number of subject areas.

Some schools and educational institutions have begun to put board games in their libraries while others explore implementation in ways that tie directly into educational goals and outcomes with consideration to content and game mechanics including the number of players.  When I was a homeroom teacher, I always had board games such as Chess or Risk in my classroom, but I mainly treated them as options for when students had extra time.  My perspective has changed as I now see board games as an opportunity for an engaging form of instruction, learning, and skill practice if they are implemented in meaningful and authentic ways.  With more complex games, guided play could be used in similar manners to read alouds or learning centres but the challenge is that our classroom systems function with whole class instructional activities where the teacher spreads out their time between 20 or more students.  A potential challenge is that board games are primarily designed for 4 or 5 people, so the question becomes how do you implement them in a classroom environment of twenty plus students where guided play may not be an option when teaching an entire class.

Hays (2005) suggests that games should be analyzed to see if they meet the instructional requirements and when used should be embedded in instructional programs to complement and help support objectives with an emphasis on debriefing so that learners can understand what happened in the game to see how it connects to learning goals.  Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Kittredge, and Klahr (2016) suggest that guided play experiences that combine child-directed nature of free play with learning outcomes and adult mentorship, is an optimal medium for delivering educational content in an enjoyable way that facilitates learning with the best possible educational outcomes.  Mayer and Harris (2010) recommend a variety of ways to implement games depending on the game content and subject matter which include learning centre based approaches for smaller group games or whole class experiences for games that are easy to play and scale up nicely with larger groups of players.

Here is a brief overview of some of the games that I have been exploring this year for possible use in schools.  This is more of an exploratory list of general ideas that have come across my mind over the past year. It should not be taken as a guide or implementation plan.

Pandemic: This cooperative strategy game could be used as an activity for students to practice “computational thinking”.   Computational thinking is a skill often linked to computer science, which is a introductory subject in multimedia and technology classes that I teach.  This could possibly assist in the development of this skill as that practice and repetition of cognitive skills can lead to automation and more efficiency in these areas (Magallon, Narbona, & Crespo-Eguilaz, 2016).  

Gloomhaven:  Gloomhaven is a tactical combat based cooperative role playing strategy game that includes a progression of choose your own adventure style scenarios.  It would be a great fit for an ongoing club or small exploratory class. It is somewhat difficult to play at first but would provide opportunities to practice cognitive skills while reinforcing concepts such as integers.  The game has a big focus on collaboration and cooperation. The one downside is that playtime for a scenario is long thus a play session may need to be extended over multiple periods. The game is also complex and quite advanced so familiarity with board games is important and would be essential so that students can play the game independently.  It could be used in a similar way to how some classrooms use games like Dungeons and Dragons in smaller exploratory classes.  It may not be a fit for every classroom, but with interested and capable students and teachers it has enormous potential.  My suggestion would be a small group of students in guided play with a teacher grade 8 and up.

Azul:  Azul is an abstract competitive strategy game that takes about 30 minutes to play.  The best way to describe it is a mix between dominos, bingo, and rummy. As you play there is a significant amount of planning and thinking ahead you need to do as you play while also emphasizing counting as well as integers.  This could be used as a casual game in class for practice of a variety of skills and is easy to learn.

Stone Age:  Stone Age is a competitive worker placement game where you are trying to feed your tribe.  There is a resource management element that emphasizes mental division and multiplication. While you play there are also a number of possible discussion points involving player choices regarding feeding your people, populations, recourse collection, and buildings.  With some teacher modification it could fit as a large group activity in the classroom. My suggestion is an adaptation of the game for teams of students with reflection and discussion components.

Spirit Island:  A cooperative strategy game where you play as nature spirits on an island that it inhabited by indigenous peoples and under the threat of colonization.  Your goal is to work together with the indigenous peoples to combat the invading colonizers. The game represents a different narrative that is often not explored in tabletop games which could provide some powerful teaching moments to explore the effects of colonialism.  The game is very complex and requires players to manage lots of information, cards, and resources. For students who play games such as Magic the Gathering, they should be able to pick up the game quickly.  My suggestion is to have this game on hand for students who already play advanced games in order to provide a game narrative that could tie into discussions about the effects of colonization.

Kingdomino:  Kingdomino is a domino game where the domino dots are replaced by different terrains and crowns.  You compete against other players to place your dominos to build a kingdom around your “King” domino.  Players are required to visualize and plan their kingdoms as they work while also having to engage in mental math for potential scoring combinations.  Every round dominoes must be placed based on their numerical value from lowest to highest, while players take turns drafting a domino then strategically placing it on the board.  This is another casual game that can be played quickly that features opportunities to practice cognitive and numeracy skills.

Near and Far:  Near and Far is a storytelling adventure game.  Players take turns collecting resources in town while adventuring to complete quests.  When players take on questions, other players take turns reading text passages out loud to them which create a choose your own adventure feel.  This game provides many read aloud opportunities while engaging players in resource management. My suggestion would be to use this game as an alternative reading exercise for students who may be struggling.  It would work best in a small group teacher guided activity.

The list above is not intended to be an exhaustive list by any means, but rather a reflection on my research and interests from the past year.  It could easily be expanded upon further, and should be looked at as the generation of ideas for potential planning purposes. Like the implementation of any other educational resources, board games should be utilized in a way that that leverages their features, experiences, and benefits within the context of the classroom or school.  

References and Further Reading

Berland, M., & Lee, V. R. (2011). Collaborative strategic board games as a site for distributed computational thinking. International Journal of Game-Based Learning (IJGBL), 1(2), 65-81.

Dennen, V. P. (2004). Cognitive apprenticeship in educational practice: Research on scaffolding, modeling, mentoring, and coaching as instructional strategies. Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, 2(2004), 813-828.

Gobet, F., Retschitzki, J., & de Voogt, A. (2004). Moves in mind: The psychology of board games. Psychology Press.

Hays, R. T. (2005). The effectiveness of instructional games: A literature review and discussion (No. NAWCTSD-TR-2005-004). Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Div Orlando Fl.

Hromek, R., & Roffey, S. (2009). Promoting Social and Emotional Learning With Games: “It’s Fun and We Learn Things”. Simulation & Gaming, 40(5), 626-644.

Laski, E. V., & Siegler, R. S. (2014). Learning from number board games: You learn what you encode. Developmental psychology, 50(3), 853.

Liu, M. (2003). Enhancing learners’ cognitive skills through multimedia design. Interactive Learning Environments, 11(1), 23-39.

Liu, M., & Hsiao, Y. P. (2002). Middle school students as multimedia designers: A project-based learning approach. Journal of interactive learning research, 13(4), 311-337.

Malik, S., & Agarwal, A. (2012). Use of multimedia as a new educational technology tool-A study. International Journal of Information and Education Technology, 2(5), 468.

Magallón, S., Narbona, J., & Crespo-Eguílaz, N. (2016). Acquisition of motor and cognitive skills through repetition in typically developing children. PloS one, 11(7), e0158684

Mayer, B., & Harris, Christopher. (2010). Libraries got game : Aligned learning through modern board games. Chicago: American Library Association.

Peterson, N. K., & Orde, B. J. (1995). Implementing multimedia in the middle school curriculum: Pros, cons and lessons learned. THE Journal, 22(7), 70-75.

Qian, M., & Clark, K. R. (2016). Game-based Learning and 21st century skills: A review of recent research. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 50-58.

Ramani, G. B., & Siegler, R. S. (2008). Promoting broad and stable improvements in low‐income children’s numerical knowledge through playing number board games. Child development, 79(2), 375-394.

Siegler, R. S., & Ramani, G. B. (2008). Playing linear numerical board games promotes low‐income children’s numerical development. Developmental science, 11(5), 655-661.

Treher, E. N. (2011). Learning with board games. The Learning Key Inc.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Kittredge, A. K., & Klahr, D. (2016). Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(3), 177-182.

Whitebread, D., Neale, D., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Solis, S. L., Hopkins, Hirsh-Pasek, Z. (2017). The role of play in children’s development: a review of the evidence. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.18500.73606

Wigfield, A., Lutz, S. L., & Wagner, A. L. (2005). Early adolescents’ development across the middle school years: Implications for school counselors. Professional school counseling, 9(2), 2156759X0500900206.

Wing, J. M. (2006). Computational thinking. Communications of the ACM, 49(3), 33-35.

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