Hot Tips & Topics

We are dedicated to providing you with a comprehensive collection of relevant and up-to-date K-12 education news and editorials. For teachers, by teachers.

Teaching Strategies: What Students Might Learn from Playing Board Games

Jordan Catapano

Research has already revealed that simply playing board games in the classroom or on family game night helps brain development. Often we think of board games as relegated to the family’s dusty closet or the indoor recess backup plan on rainy days. But board games offer a variety of mind-enriching opportunities that could provide big benefits for our students via emplyong them as part of our teaching strategies.

Games by definition are something we play, offering the opportunity to think, react, adapt, master, compete, and laugh all the way through. Research also suggests that board games can be helpful in building social skills and self-esteem, as well as teach kids about rules, competition, fair play, and values.

Games can be just plain fun. While we strive to capture attention and activate imagination with our lessons, we might be able to find ready-made opportunities for learning within those classic board games we relegate to our dusty shelves. Perhaps we take some time to consider how board games can play a more upfront role within our teaching strategies and curriculums and within how we see child development.

Teaching Strategies: Some Classic Board Games Students Can Learn From

Monopoly. Known as the classic game of real estate and trade, Monopoly is virtually a must-have for the American household. But what about the American classroom? Along with its snazzy tokens and play money, Monopoly is known for teaching students about math and finances. Monopoly is also an incredible powerful mechanism for introducing students to the art of negotiation, which Philip Orbanes author of “Monopoly, Money, and You: How to Profit from the Game’s Secret of Success” said “Is the first and perhaps most significant training ground kids get in learning the importance of the art of negotiation and how to do it.”

Related Articles
A few ways teachers can embrace technology and stay relevant in the lives of their digitalized students.
A few ways teachers can embrace technology and stay relevant in the lives of...
Today, we ran a "think piece" on picture day in the teaching profession.
Today, we ran a "think piece" on picture day in the teaching profession.
If you are wondering how to teach your students about hurricanes, here are some decent resources for learning and teaching about them.
If you are wondering how to teach your students about hurricanes, here are some...
Effective teaching strategies to help re-engage your students after winter break.
Effective teaching strategies to help re-engage your students after winter...
5 amazing classroom management tips.
5 amazing classroom management tips.

This board game is relatively simple to learn at a young age, but offers opportunity for increasing levels of sophistication related to finances, investing, strategy, diplomacy, probability, and social interaction. Include this in your classroom and provide students with the chance to play full games with one another, reflect on what strategies led to victories, and key-in on exploiting some of those skill sets this game helps facilitate. Plus, Monopoly has so many quirky editions that it can suit nearly anyone’s interests and ability level.

Risk. The game of world domination, as it’s subtitled, initially seems rooted in chance. After all, every turn involves multiple roles of the dice. Can this game just be about probability, odds, and luck? The answer is definitely not.

Risk involves multiple players building armies, protecting their territories, and attacking their opponents in a global quest for conquest. As I played with friends, I realized that it was the same friends who ended up winning again and again – so luck had nothing to do with it. What these friends possessed (and I lacked) was the skills of diplomacy and negotiation mixed with a keen insight into timing, odds, and long-term strategy. This game blends a number of disciplines into its concept, compelling students to master certain skills or face extinction.

Since Risk takes place on a game board largely shaped off of major global territories, playing helps students gain a greater sense of geography, and how geopolitics can play a role in alliances, developments, and victories. The game offers fantastic tie-ins to mathematics and social study concepts that resonate deeply with students vying in this game of global conquest.

Scrabble. Scrabble is known for “teaching new words,” and its challenging format compels players to take a random mix of consonants and vowels and transform them into winning word combinations. While world Scrabble champions often seem to possess a genetic predisposition for anagramming words, memorizing obscure terms, and strategizing board space use, there are plenty of advantages for our students. Namely, our students are forced to contrive words, look them up in dictionaries, and focus on their linguistic-cognitive skills in a competitive format.

Chess. Chess is known as the king of board games, the ultimate in strategy, planning, and one-on-one competition. Chess is more than a board game – it’s a symbol of war, politics, relationships, and a far-reaching range of competitive analogies. It takes “Moments to learn but a lifetime to master,” and it provides overwhelming opportunity for our students. Each side has 16 pieces and battles for control over an 8x8 board. But within that tiny space, dramatic use of strategy, planning, resource management, anticipation, and counter-maneuver are played out. Plus, plenty of easy connections to war, politics, and general human interactions can be inspired by board play.

In 2008, researchers in Germany divided students into two groups – one that received five hours of math instruction a week and one that received four hours of math instruction a week plus an hour of chess. The study found that students who had less direct math instruction yet an hour of chess play ended up developing higher math-associated academic abilities, suggesting that chess can genuinely pump up students’ brains in ways that strict academic instruction cannot.

Clue. There’s been a murder, and only the best player’s powers of logic and reasoning can help solve the mystery. The classic “Whodunnit?” board game asks students to create and then test hypotheses to steadily deduce the murderer, the room, and the weapon before other competing players do. At the basic level, students slowly learn to cross off the cards they see from themselves and others off their list. However, as cognitive abilities become more complex, players can involve a rich series of social interactions and deductive powers to arrive at the correct answer. This is not just for fun at the grade school level; Professor Todd Neller et al. in 2006 conducted research to incorporate the game of Clue into his course to teach propositional logic and computer programming to college students.

What To Ask Ourselves About Board Games

The games listed above are just a few classics, the games you’re likely to find in your closet at home, on your indoor recess shelves, or on sale in your local store’s game aisle. But there are limitless possibilities when it comes to board games. When considering any board game to have your students enjoy, consider some of the following questions:

  • Does this game match the age/grade level? Board games can be adapted to many different age levels. Make sure your students are playing at a level that’s appropriately complex without becoming frustrating or impossible.
  • What skills does a student need to possess to do well in the game? All board games revolve around certain skills. Ask yourself which ones any given board game requires students to focus on.
  • What skills will this game help a student to develop? If your students were to consistently play certain games, what skills would their minds become especially adept at performing?
  • How can we facilitate discussion and explanation of their thinking? Often, teacher-guided surveys, reflections, and in-the-moment prodding can accelerate skill acquisition. Consider how your role as a facilitator can encourage students to vocalize their thinking and reasoning processes.
  • Is there any carryover? Sometimes when you play a game, you just get better at playing that game without those skills crossing over into other areas of metacognition. Think about how the games that your students play might offer opportunity to develop skills that extend into many other potential areas, too.

Board games don’t have to take center stage in your curriculum, but they might provide a unique, fun opportunity to facilitate higher order cognitive abilities in ways that our normal academic studies may not. Consider how you might either encourage your students to play more board games on their own, or how you could potentially bring these games into your classroom and help students dive into these fun and competitive learning opportunities.

What do you think about using board games in the classroom? What games would you suggest? Tell us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.

CaseyMartin / Shutterstock.com