Teaching through play: Five tips for games in the classroom

As teachers, we are constantly trying to think up new creative ways to teach a concept. If you’re teaching grammar, you’re considering climbing onto the table to help them learn the difference between ‘up’ and ‘above’. If you’re teaching geography, you’re wondering if you can turn the classroom into a terrain that they can navigate with a map.

The problem is, the most creative ideas often come and go. “Wouldn’t it be great to organise a field trip?!” you think, and then you’re overwhelmed with the thought of trying to secure a budget and get it approved by your head of department. So instead we often opt for routine teaching methods: things that are safe, tested and overall, quick to prepare.

The result? We shouldn’t be surprised when our students get into a rut, because we are. Trying out new creative teaching techniques has been proven to kick start the learning process and can breathe some fun back into your job as well.

One such technique, that has been showing consistently positive results among learners, is the concept of ‘gaming’. With today’s kids more technologically savvy than ever before, their brains process and discard information more quickly, and are used to a higher level of stimulation. Playing games is a way of helping them become familiar with new concepts that suits their brain-processing patterns and satisfies their desire for entertainment at the same time.

One educator and researcher, Robert J. Marzano, conducted 60 classroom studies, and found that: “on average, using academic games in the classroom is associated with a 20 percentile point gain in student achievement.”

If a 20% grade improvement is not an incentive to have some fun in class, what is?

Here are a few ideas for incorporating simple games into your lesson plans.

  1. Adapt a popular TV game show.

    Do you love watching Deal or No Deal, or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Bring the excitement of a TV show into the classroom. Create a simple “studio” with a home-made buzzer (it could just be someone hitting a gong when the time is up). Appoint a timer, a TV show host and even a panel of judges. Let your students know a few days in advance so that they have time to prepare (read: study!) for the day. You might be amazed what they can learn when there’s a bit of limelight involved.

  2. Have a scavenger hunt.

    Hide clues around the classroom or the entire school. Students need to answer a question correctly or demonstrate their understanding of a concept before they’re allowed to open the next clue. It takes a little more preparation, but the kids will be completely enthralled!

  3. Use ‘inconsequential competition’.

    In his research, Marzano found that “students like to compete as long as the stakes are not high”. So, put the kids into teams and let them play against one another. It need not be a competition that lasts a day; you could let the game go on for a term or even the entire school year.

    Provide a chocolate for the winners, or some other small incentive. However, making a rule such as “the winners will get pushed up a grade on their term mark” could frighten and/or paralyse them, thereby inhibiting the learning process. Make sure you mix up the teams every once in a while, so that certain learners aren’t consistently winning while others become demotivated by losing every time they play.

  4. Get the students to help prepare.

    One of the best -- and sneakiest -- ways of getting your kids to engage with the content you want them to, is to let them help prepare the game. For example, one group could come up with questions and answers for the other team. All of a sudden, they’re incentivised to really research content in detail, and they’re checking themselves for accuracy along the way.

  5. Discuss the game after you’ve played it.

    Remember that your aim is to get the students to engage with core academic content in a way that is different, lively and stimulating. So steer this process in a way that best meets your needs. A few days before you play a round of Jeopardy, for example, you could tell the students which questions might come up, and ask them how many points they think each question is worth. Discuss the answers to the questions as you evaluate the difficult of each one. Or, after the game ask the students which questions were the most difficult to answer and why.

Use these tips to bring some fun into your classroom. You’re guaranteed to have smiling students and, as their grades improve, you’ll be smiling too!