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Why Great Games Make Your Kids Forget They’re Actually Learning

6 min read
family playing board games

Most of us underestimate the learning potential of games. Games don’t just promote curiosity and active problem-solving, they encourage deeper learning and high engagement. They create safe places for kids to take risks and learn to manage the emotions that come with failure. Just think, kids, replay games not just for fun, but for the challenge. It’s this unique learning experience that draws them in. 

Successful Learning Environments Distinguish Great Games

Gameful learning – learning through games – is so powerful that education researchers like professor Barry Fishman, at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, are applying this approach to public education. Through his research, he and his colleagues discovered that all great games create successful learning environments and that many educational games do this poorly. They’ve identified ten crucial characteristics that all games must have to successfully teach.

10 Characteristics of Great Games that Really Help Kids Learn 

  1. Clear Learning Goals: They promote specific skill development such as conceptual knowledge and soft skills like player negotiation and collaboration. 
  2. Identity Play: They ask kids to role-play – think like a scientist and not just learn scientific facts. 
  3. Embedded Assessment: They increase in difficulty as kids master a skill and lower the difficulty when kids are struggling. Some games like Pandemic Legacy will supply players with bonus cards they can use if they previously failed a mission. The same cards are taken away when players successfully complete missions and move on to the next level. 
  4. Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation: They provide external rewards to get kids started but also help them find their own internal reasons for continuing to play overtime. 
  5. Support Autonomy: They support freedom of choice where players make decisions that matter and lead to different ends. 
  6. Encourage Belonging: They create a sense of community. Think cooperative games like Forbidden Island where kids have to work as a team to win.
  7. Support Competence: They support and help kids master unique skill sets. Games like Dominion promote strategic thinking skills by requiring kids to think of new strategies every time they play. 
  8. Productive Failure: They let kids safely fail by setting a low price for failure. 
  9. Encourage Exploration: They encourage risk-taking and reward kids for poking around. Many games offer Easter eggs or bonuses for exploring new areas of a game. Some games even require it; Civilization requires kids to venture off into new territory to find resources that help them gain an advantage.  
  10. Practice & Reinforcement: They make kids feel like their practice is meaningful, where goals are within reach and learning outcomes are reinforced. 

Powerful Learning Takes Place in the Post-Game Activities 

The activities that follow a game are great opportunities to reinforce learning outcomes. Games layout the learning goals and the post-game activities reinforce them. These activities can have tremendous value when they don’t just focus on gameplay but also focus on helping kids develop different skills. 

Talking with kids about what they’ve learned helps them identify what they did well and where they can improve. Analyzing in-game strategies helps kids think critically about their choices. Discussions about game setbacks help kids build resilience – you can do this by asking kids about the problems they encountered, how that made them feel and what they did to overcome it. In subject-specific games that teach fact knowledge, you can help kids review new things they’ve learned by creating posters and flashcards. We can remember to reinforce learning outcomes through thoughtful activities like these that help our kids get the most out of gameplay. 


kids playing video games

Video Games or Board Games: Which is Best for Learning? 

Video games and board games can both be great for learning. Any well-designed game is full of teaching opportunities so long as it creates a successful learning environment. Video games, such as Minecraft, are feature-rich, engaging platforms for teaching subject-specific knowledge like coding. Studies have shown, even controversial, first-person-shooter games teach spatial reasoning and visual acuity especially well; these players often test better than the non-gamer groups.

Board games, on the other hand, offer kids the unique advantage of real-life fun. Aside from specific goals like strategic thinking or conceptual knowledge, they’re also an excellent way of getting kids off screens. Many adults love board games because they promote this sense of community that is so essential to happiness and well-being. 


Don’t Miss Out On Using Games for Teaching

By taking a little time and carefully selecting the games your child plays, you can transform the game experience into an amazing learning opportunity. Enjoying the games with them will also provide a fun, social activity for the
whole family.

family playing board games

6 Screen-Free Games that Teach Kids At Every Age

Games promote discovery, help kids master skills and acquire new knowledge. Vetted by kids and parents, here are some of the best games for teaching different skills and concepts!

Ages 3-5

  • Animal Upon Animal – Make a pyramid out of animals. Who will position the penguin on top of the crocodile, the sheep on top of the penguin, the serpent on the sheep? (What They Learn: Dexterity, Simple Strategy)
  • Whoowasit? Players work cooperatively to uncover clues and defeat the evil wizard. (What They Learn: Deductive Reasoning)

Ages 6-9

  • Forbidden Island – Players work as a team to capture four sacred treasures from the ruins of this perilous paradise. (What They Learn: Collaboration & Soft Skills)
  • DixitOne player is the storyteller for the turn and makes up a sentence from one of her cards. The others choose a card from their hand that matches the story. The group then guesses which card was the storyteller’s card.  (What They Learn: Abstract Thinking, Storytelling and Presentation Skills)

Ages 10-13

  • Ticket to RideA cross-country train adventure game. Players collect train cards that let them claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America. The longer the routes, the more points they earn. (What They Learn: Spatial Reasoning, Geography)
  • Dominion – A classic deck-building card game where each player uses a separate deck of cards and draw their hands from their own decks. Players use the cards in their hands to either perform actions or buy select cards from a common pool of card stacks. The player with the most victory points at the end wins. (What They Learn: Strategic Thinking)

Veronica Lin is the founder of Playcademy, an after-school board game program for kids 8 to 13-years-old that helps them develop skills like critical thinking, writing, and discussion – while having an awesome time playing with friends! www.Playcademy.ca 

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