Making it a Game

This is surely the oldest trick in the book. Games motivate kids. Heck, games motivate adults. (Actually, most things I say of children can be applied to many older people). I’m speaking specifically about games with rules and stakes, not imaginative play type games. Those are useful, too, but not the focus of this post. Anyway, games are fun for many reasons. They add stakes to any situation. Sometimes the only reward at the end is self-confidence, but that can be very motivating. They challenge us. They are often social. The best ones make us laugh.

Games can and should be used at every level of education to motivate kids to learn and practice skills. Specifically, rote memorization, which can be so incredibly boring, but is totally necessary for many fundamental concepts (like times tables), can always be framed in a game. And I’m not just talking about jeopardy, although that’s a good start. So, how do we get creative with our games? We want the kids moving and thinking at the same time whenever possible. Teams are good for simultaneously teaching social skills.

One good model is to make pairs of cards (i.e. one with a word and one with its meaning, or one with a multiplication problem and one with the product) and use them in many ways. Give one to each kid and have them find their pair. Similarly, you could put them out as a memory game station in the classroom for individual or group play. Hide half of each pair around the room and give out the other half. Pair hunt!

A good one for science vocabulary is a sort of Simon says type game in which each vocabulary word cues a movement (and maybe a sound) related to its meaning. Like, “gas” cues them to move quickly like a gas molecule, “liquid” cues them to move in flowing way, and “solid” cues them to stand still but maybe wiggle just a little. A leader calls out the words and the kids have to do the right movement.

Last year, I had tremendous success with a game a called “team letters” in which two teams competed to form letters by standing in the appropriate lines and curves. I stood on a chair to see the letters from above. This time the game was a ruse to teach them a lesson about self control. You see, these fifth graders would not stand in a straight line, no matter how many times I asked, and waited, and lectured. So I planned this little trick. I started with easy letters. T facing the door. V facing the board. O. I challenged them with harder letters. R. S. lowercase k facing the math projects. and then I hit them with – lowercase L facing me! In under two seconds I had two perfectly straight lines of students turned to me.

I surveyed the scene. “Huh. That is interesting.” I drawled. “Does this feel… familiar to any of you?”

The students were indignant as they realized one by one what they had done. “You tricked us!”

I asked them why it was so easy for them to achieve this objective in the game, and not at any other time. We discussed motivation and self control. And it helped. It wasn’t perfect, but I could call out “Lowercase L!” and they’d remember and roughly assume the correct positions. I think the real value of the game was to give them a chance to recognize and analyze their own behavior. I believe that self-awareness is an agent of self-change.

Games are also a great way to motivate boring tasks like cleaning up. Racing against the clock heightens the stakes without any need for real prizes. Keeping track of times is a great way to inspire diligence and focus. When the kids are competing against themselves, there is none of the animosity that can come from other kinds of competition.

Games also can be used to practice skills like following directions, strategic thinking, and staying on task. In the context of a game, rules are suddenly fun! And to follow them is not a burdensome requirement but an engaging test.

To sum up, anything you want to teach or practice can be built into a game structure. Kids love it and it’s often fun for grownups too. If you need help thinking of a game for a particular set of skills or material, contact me, and I will joyfully respond :o)

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