How Do You Bring Board Games Into a Middle School Technology Class?

Gaming is a powerful tool that can be harnessed by teachers and educators in different ways. Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in the pedagogical approach of game-based learning. I was fortunate this school year to be able to access some additional funding to bring some extra tabletop/board games into my classroom. My opinion is that games can provide meaningful learning experiences, but I have concerns about the amount of screen-time that my students have. Thus, I am not totally comfortable encouraging digital games at all times and consider tabletop/board games as powerful alternatives that can provide deep experiences. This project was outside of my regular program and there were some logistical considerations for me to think about, especially with how this could work in a class where the focus is on doing things like making movies, recording podcasts, or learning some introductory computer science.

When I began teaching, I saw value in both tabletop and video games, yet I did not understand how to use them.  I always had games on hand in my classroom, but they were largely there as an activity students could do at lunch or when they had completed their work.  As I was working on my M.Ed. degree, I began to see possibilities for using them for instruction as I was pursuing research projects on game-based learning .  It became apparent to me through this process that there was not a significant body of research on using tabletop games in the classroom, but I was still able to complete what I think could be considered a substantial review of the literature.

After getting myself versed in the research and literature, I began by bringing games into my classroom and by running an after school “unplugged” gaming club. Initially these were games that the school already had or I had purchased myself. When I was able to access some professional development project funding, I was able to bring in more and establish a diverse collection of games in my classroom. 

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I placed the games on my shelves for students to see. As I teach “Multimedia and Technology”, I would frequently use them as examples of different forms of media while teaching, but this served as more of an introduction.  I teach over 600 students a year over three terms, and I believe that it is fair to say that although I feel that most of my students are interested and engaged in my classes, there are those who have some difficulty. There are a number of students that are hesitant when working in groups, and who do not buy into traditional styles of lessons or activities.  This can be challenging as a significant amount of time in my class is spent on group projects where students not only learn about creating multimedia projects like films or podcasts, but they also learn about working together, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and more. Some would consider these as twenty-first century skills, and although they may not be the first things students think about when they are in my class, I believe that they are extremely important for students to develop. My thought process for this project was to bring in the tabletop games as an opportunity to engage my disengaged students while developing skills.  

I used the games that I purchased including Dixit, Timeline, Codenames, Tsuro, Ticket to Ride, Sushi Go Party!, Forbidden Island, Tokyo Highway, and High Treason, but I also brought in some games that I had at home or that we had at school including Splendor, Pandemic, King Domino, Azul, Settlers of Catan, Spirit Island, and Agricola.  The games were varied in terms of lengths, mechanics, subject, and complexity,but this was positive as it provided students with choices that could be tailored to their own personal interests.  

Within my class, I began by getting students who were disengaged to play one of the games with either myself or one of the high school practicum/mentorship students that I was working with.  I was consistently able to get a students who were distancing themselves to engage in playing one of the games. Throughout the playing process, I would encourage problem solving, critical thinking, and communications.  I would say that my observations were that students move from being in a passive state to being active participants. Some of my highlights include:

  • A discussion about minority and indigenous representation while playing Timeline: Canada.
  • There were students who would frequently disappear from class or would not participate in any activity. By bringing games in, these students would remain in class interacting with others while playing various games, eventually staying long enough to begin participating with groups on multimedia production projects.
  • One student who would normally not participate with anything, began playing some of the different games, then engaging on design projects in Adobe Photoshop creating additional cards for the games.
  • Students who had goals of working on communication objectives engaging in game-play of Dixit and Tsuro in guided play with myself with discussion prompts, conversation, and strategy specifically targeting their individual learning goals.
  • Students signing out games from me to bring home as family activities. This is important as not all families are able to afford board games, and makes me wonder about the potential of libraries having games for students to take out.
  • Helping students make social connections through our gaming club.
  • After guiding a few playing sessions of Azul, Stone Age, and King Domino, the group of students decided to team up and make a strategy for them all to finish ahead of me.  What results was a collaborative problem solving effort as a group to “beat the teacher”.
  • Guided play experiences focusing on problem solving with simulations and “if then, that” conversations being related to computational thinking.

As I was bringing in different games, I learned from the experience.  Although some games had some rich and engaging content, there are some practical limitations of what you can actually do in a classroom.  An example being Spirit Island where you play as nature spirits fighting invading colonial forces may provide powerful discussion and teaching opportunities, but it is too difficult to implement due to the game’s complexity and length.

The games that seem to work best in classrooms are those that have time limits under an hour and have a level of complexity that is accessible but still engaging for students of different capabilities. Personally I found that the easiest games to bring in were Azul, Splendor, King Domino, Forbidden Island, Pandemic, Dixit, Timeline, and Sushi Go Party!. This being said, it is still easy as a teacher to modify some of the other games to make them fit in a bit better. I did this with Stone Age and High Treason: The Trial of Louis Rield.

The COVID-19 pandemic limited the full potential of this project, as I was not able to establish a consistent long term practice as schools were closed. Yet, I feel that the experience of bringing in these games showed promise and potential for bringing games into the classroom as tools for engagement, the development of twenty-first century skills, and the connection to subject content.  As a teacher, bringing tabletop games into my classroom opens up possibilities for engaging and teaching the varied learners that I see. There are some limitations of what can work in this context, but there is opportunity here to explore this further in the future.

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