Every week at the Nysmith School in Herndon, Virginia, Philip Baselice breaks out a game to teach his class about key world events. Baselice teaches history to middle schoolers, and game-based simulations have been part of his teaching arsenal for the last nine years, ever since he first tried it.
“I used a game to teach my students about the causes behind the start of the First World War. I really wanted to get the material across in a way that it sticks with them,” Baselice says.
In Baselice’s game, each team of students represents one of the countries that initially started the war, and the objective of the game — played with index cards and a lot of negotiation between the teams — is to understand all the interconnected events that led to conflict breaking out.
A few classrooms down, Baselice’s colleague Jonathan Nardolilli teaches middle school mathematics using a board game he created himself to instruct students about the different angles created by parallel lines intersecting a transversal. “There’s a board with parallel lines and on their turn, each student has to put down an angle and a card justifying the theorem behind it. The idea is to get them to think about the different relationships between angles,” Nardolilli says.
Nardolilli’s experience in designing educational games goes back to when he would create science-themed birthday parties at an after-school science center. Now, he and Baselice collaborate to create and test games and are actively trying to gather evidence that these activities aren’t just good for engagement, but for long-term learning. For example, Nardolilli says, “I’ve noticed that my students make fewer mistakes in identifying angles now.”
The popularity of games and play-based learning has waxed and waned in the traditional American classroom, according to Alicia Miller, a science educator from Evans, Georgia, who’s always used “hands-on” activities in her classroom. “There was a lot more unguided play when I started my teaching career 15 years ago. Over time, the focus shifted to [following] standards more,” Miller says. But there’s been a resurgence of sorts, especially as students have come back to the classroom after a tumultuous and often isolating online class experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Now you want kids to collaborate, and even copy ideas from each other and learn. It can reduce the onus on the teacher,” Miller says.
This revived interest is also backed by research. In January 2022, a review of 17 research studies showed that young kids can learn from “guided play” as well as if they were being directly instructed by an adult or a teacher. More play in the classroom also addresses issues currently burning precarious holes in the education system. In an email survey conducted by Lego Education in September, 98 percent of 1,000 K-8 teachers indicated that play-based learning “reduces their feelings of burnout.” The same study also captured responses from 1,000 K-8 students, of whom 89 percent said play made them “more excited” to go to school. Lego has used its signature building-block toys as a basis for play-based activity guides for teachers.
Angie, a high school teacher in Prince William County, Virginia, who asked to be identified by her first name only, says playing games in class has helped students be social with each other again after the pandemic’s sudden disruption. “I noticed that the kids were afraid to take chances. Games let them experiment with the concept,” Angie says. She adds that the game takes pressure off them because what they are trying to master or win is the game, not something that comes across as an abstract concept on a worksheet.
The benefits of playing in the classroom are becoming more obvious. However, setting up the right conditions to learn from games is not straightforward at all. “There is a perceptual mismatch between the best practices of game design and what’s needed in a classroom. It has to be a whole experience in a box,” says Elaine Fath, a lead designer at the Center for Transformational Play at Carnegie Mellon University.
Like Nardolilli and Baselice, Fath has also been on both sides of the game board — she’s a former educator-turned-games designer — and has both the time and interest to experiment with and design appropriate games for the classroom. For the average educator though, Fath says, trying out a new game is a serious commitment. “You’ve got to find a game, independently seek out its validity, make sure it’s appropriate for your class, connect it to your curriculum and get outcomes,” she explains.
While there’s focus on getting kids to socialize, school leaders and administrators also have one eye trained on the slipping reading and math scores in their districts. The pace at which these goals need to be achieved, says Angie, clash directly with the time needed to trial a game and link it to the mandated learning standards.
And some barriers are not just about meeting learning goals.
“When I’m testing a game, I have no way of knowing if it’s going to be blocked by the school’s servers,” Angie says. “I’ve planned my class around a game, only to find that the website’s been blocked. That’s frustrating.”
Can’t Just Press Play
Catherine Croft, a teacher at Fauquier High School in Warrenton, Virginia, spends her weekends rummaging through yard sales to find games for her class. A neurobiologist by training, Croft also designs her own STEM games for students, and like Nardolilli and Baselice she is trying to gather more evidence that games can lead to learning outcomes. Croft and Nardolilli also launched their own STEM game design company, Catilli, in 2015.
“It started off with trying to figure out what concepts are boring or difficult to teach,” says Croft. To teach the periodic table, for instance, Croft came up with a tabletop game called Starsmith. Students in four groups roll dice to “capture” chemical elements to form stars. The game has a competitive element to it; you can challenge your opponent to a dice battle if you want to steal elements that are still hanging out in the “nebula.” Playing out how chemicals fuse together helps students internalize the information, not just learn it temporarily, claims Croft.
Croft uses both online and offline games in her class, but she prefers the tabletop game to an online version. Like Angie, Croft’s online game options also get stuck in the school’s filters. Plus, Croft says, tabletop games don’t have to rely on one-to-one devices or fast internet.
These improvised or newly created tabletop games do have to go through a fair bit of testing before being introduced as a lesson plan. Angie says despite testing the games in advance for timing and the desired learning outcome, actually using it in class can get derailed when students start to ask too many questions.
To get some learning out of a game, says Nardolilli, it takes more than mashing together a few game-like elements: “If you’re just using flashcards or a points system, then you’re just presenting information in a new way. You aren’t using the game mechanics to convey the core concept.”
Game designers have to work backward from the learning concept they want to deliver, and not the other way around.
Fath found this when she designed a board game called Outbreak for middle schoolers. While some games have more narrow objectives, like helping students learn to parse out syllables in a word, Outbreak had a loftier goal — to improve the engagement of middle school students in math and science classes, especially for girls and students of color. Fath says she and her team did upward of 10 prototypes of Outbreak and every version was tested with groups of 20 students in after-school play sessions. The board game was designed in a way where every player rolled their dice to move across the board and explore different “scary” rooms to collect points. The learning objective was to help these students have the confidence to ask questions in front of their peers.
“To find out what was in each room, the players have to ask yes/no questions. They feel nervous about entering haunted rooms, but not about asking the question. They start to focus on what kind of questions would give them the answer they need to enter the room,” Fath says.
Over the 10 iterations, Fath kept a handy rubric on what a good question sounds like, and would match that with what the students were asking. Initially, the questions didn’t improve at all. “Our instructions were too leading in terms of how students had to construct their questions. So we made it more open-ended. And the questions improved,” Fath says.
Agents of Chaos and Control
Fath and her team worked on Outbreak for nine months before it was used in a classroom. But not too many game designers, says Fath, think about how their game would work in an actual, overcrowded classroom. For her own game, Fath realized that to finish it in 90 minutes in a 50-student class, one educator couldn’t facilitate the game for all the player groups. “We changed the game so that each group could be run by an expert player. Maybe an older student who had played the game before,” Fath says.
To get the desired learning outcomes from a game, educators have to create the right conditions for play. They have to decide how much information to give students before they start playing, and what students need to discover through the game. Croft says that pre-and post-game discussions are built into the games she designs, but students are left alone when they’re playing the actual game. “The role of the facilitator is key. There’s a lot going on in the game but you have to bring their attention to specific takeaways,” Croft explains.
The debrief is crucial, says Nardolilli, to drive home the content that the game is trying to connect to. “Once students have played, messed up, failed and mastered the game, I ask them why they made particular choices. This is where they learn the most,” says Nardolilli. Angie, for her game on supply and demand, gets students to fill up a reflection worksheet, which asks them specific questions about what factors make demand and supply fluctuate for a commodity like coffee. “It helps explain concepts like consumer sovereignty or extenuating factors like weather and reputation on the price of coffee,” Angie says.
The facilitation, prep and instructions change when dealing with looser playing structure, or an early-grade classroom. Miller, the teacher from Georgia, has to get organized before her elementary class comes into play. “I set up bins and solo cups with Lego pieces. I allow for four to five minutes for the kids to pick their pieces before I introduce an activity,” says Miller.
It’s not a completely unguided exercise where the kids spend 20 minutes just picking out the pieces they want to play with. “That wouldn’t lead to a routine,” Miller says.
The assignment itself could be simple — like using Legoss to build a bridge — but is tied to an activity like writing. With each piece of the bridge students build, they have to write a paragraph. “I get a lot more writing out of them in this way,” Miller says.
Evidence in Action
These educators know that their students are much better engaged when they turn their material into games or play. But does better engagement improve their grades?
According to Nardolilli, “They use the right math vocabulary, which they picked up from playing the game.” Baselice, the history teacher, says his students do “much better” on quizzes about the lessons that were gamified in his class. “I’ve noticed that [in quizzes], students often refer back to when they role-played a country or a faction, and what they did during the game. Even information they learned two grades ago stays with them,” says Baselice.
Engagement is a key factor here, Baselice explains, because the frustration, joy or anger that students feel while playing the game helps them remember the material better.
Fath says that a few qualitative studies done on Outbreak showed that students who played the game “exhibited more curiosity” and were more open to new information while playing the game. There is, however, no clearinghouse for emerging and improvised educational games, says Fath, which makes it hard for teachers to pick the right one for their class. “Teachers have no way to compare. That’s why word of mouth is so important in this field,” says Fath.
Even with a solid game recommendation, Angie says it’s unfair to expect educators to experiment when facing so much pressure to focus on standardized test scores.
That’s why Croft believes that games could become more pervasive if there was more research into how games can contribute to learning. “Then teachers won’t think games are a waste of time,” she says. “It becomes part of the teaching method.”