Many teachers love to use games to support their teaching practice. Play is an important part of learning in the early years, and there’s good evidence that children benefit from continuing to play games as they move into primary school.
Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of US teachers have reported using digital games during P-8 instruction. Here are three top reasons why games are a great part of classroom practice.
Three major benefits of game-based learning
Encouraging motivation and engagement with learning
The most popular use of games in the classroom is to engage students. There is a solid body of evidence that shows that educational games are effective at motivating children because they provide experiences that they enjoy and want to continue.
When a game is designed to achieve an educational outcome, it can be a great way to re-engage children who are:
- hesitant to try, or
- simply need re-energising on a slow afternoon.
Digital learning games offer the additional benefit of tracking children’s engagement for teacher reporting. Games like Minecraft Education encourage students to create journals or portfolios for teachers to evaluate.
Other game platforms capture student activity on an analytics dashboard. In these ways, a well-designed digital learning game:
- weaves learning into game progress
- provides rewards that motivate children to keep trying
- delivers support tools for teachers.
Improving disposition and willingness to learn from mistakes
Games are great at helping students overcome the fear of failing — by encouraging them to ‘have another go’ when a winning strategy turns out not to work. Because children grow up playing games, they recognise that working towards a goal is a normal part of any game.
Learning games use these aspects of gameplay to help children overcome fears and improve their disposition towards learning. For example, when trying to solve a maths puzzle in the Town Squared game, structured feedback explains why an attempt didn’t work and clues help children consider new strategies to solve the problem.
The combination of playfulness, puzzle structures and supportive feedback helps maths-anxious children feel confident to try again.
Helping connect learning at school with learning at home
Many parents want to support their children’s learning, but they may not feel entirely confident to do so. This is particularly true for subjects such as mathematics. Research shows that a child feeling maths anxiety is sometimes linked to other family members’ history with maths.
Playing a game together is a great way for a parent or adult carer to explore concepts together in a positive context. Learning the rules of the game and making mistakes give everyone the space to practise and improve skills without fear or embarrassment.
If a child has already learned to play the game at school, they may also benefit from explaining it to their family members. Describing an idea helps children process their own understanding of a concept and can make them feel proud of their own knowledge and abilities.
Using digital games to introduce, reinforce or enrich learning concepts can mean adapting a popular game like Civilization VI to classroom use, or using a game that has learning goals built into the game design.
3 ways teachers can use digital games to support learning in class and at home
Playing together in small, mixed ability groups
Small group collaboration helps children learn social skills as they play. Multiplayer games like Town Squared have the additional benefit of puzzles that adapt to each child, so students feel that they are still playing the same virtual world together even though the learning is personalised and adapted to their level.
Rounding out a lesson plan
Some teachers like to use games as a fun way to bring the whole class together at the end of a sequence of lessons. Playing a game is an excellent way to apply classroom learning when the class has mastered a topic.
After hours care and home time
Having a few games on hand is a great way to use the children’s remaining time before school pickup. Digital games can also work well for homework, allowing students to apply what they have learned in class and collating their progress so teachers can review it the next day.
Research confirms teachers’ intuition that when learning becomes an active part of play, the use of games enhances student motivation. Of course, any game is just part of the picture — they are most effective when used as one tool in a teaching toolkit. Choosing and using good quality games that go beyond superficial learning enhancements has real benefits for teachers and students alike.
About the author
Sarah is a learning designer with more than 20 years’ experience working with teachers and education specialists, developing learning games and play-based learning activities. Sarah’s work focuses on aligning educational goals with the best of child-centred design practice.
Sarah co-founded Playlunch Games in 2020, collaborating with the Mathematical Association of Victoria (MAV) and other maths specialists to develop math learning games and resources for teachers and parents. In 2023, Playlunch Games launched Town Squared, a multiplayer game that weaves maths concepts and financial literacy learning into gameplay.