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Wary of Classroom Games? An Expert Addresses Concerns

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this blog post by Rebekah Stathakis, author of A Good Start:147 Warm-Up Activities for Spanish Class.

While games can be of great benefit in the classroom, I recognize that some educators have concerns or criticisms where game-playing is concerned. As I have worked with educators and other stakeholders, here are the questions I have heard most frequently, along with my responses:

  1. Isn’t competition harmful? I am concerned that the competition can be intimidating or challenging for some students.

    There certainly are concerns with using competition in classrooms. Students can lose sight of learning goals when excessively striving to win; whenever there are “winners” in a class there must be “losers,” and that can be a problem for all of the students. Numerous educators have articulated these and other concerns with competition (for example, read this article by Alfie Kohn).

    It is important to understand that game-playing is not necessarily competitive. There are many ways to play games cooperatively. My students enjoy class games where they play as one team; they may have to work together to reach a goal or continuously work to improve their class record. They also like to play “against” me in “stump-the-teacher” games. Because of the nature of these challenges, I do not feel that we are genuinely competing against each other. If you have concerns with competition (which, honestly, I do), design your games so they are collaborative in nature.
  2. My students can't play games; every time I try a game my students are out of control.

    As with other classroom activities, students need to be taught how to play games. The first time I play a game with my sixth-graders, it take a long time to set up the game. Since I teach Spanish, I model the game in Spanish using exaggerated gestures and simplified vocabulary. Although I rarely use English in the classroom, I take a moment to talk to my students about appropriate game playing. Our classroom expectations do not change when we play games, and I make that very clear to students (for example, my number-one expectation is that we treat everyone with respect).

    If I feel that the game is not working well or that students are getting out of control, there are a variety of options. Sometimes, I stop the game and reiterate proper game etiquette. Other times, I will modify the structure of the game to hopefully calm down the group (for example, instead of students calling out answers, they could write them on whiteboards or silently record them on papers). Other times, I will stop the game and let my students know that the game is not working and we will have to try another activity. After class, I take the time to reflect on what wasn’t working and how I can make changes to be more effective. I have yet to meet a group of students that can’t handle game playing—with each group, I have to take the time to learn how to effectively engage them in meaningful games.
  3. When we play games, I am not convinced that everyone is learning. How do you make sure that all of your students benefit?

    During games (or any classroom activity), I want to ensure that I have ways to monitor students and provide them with appropriate feedback. In most games, I try to ensure that each person has a task to complete. For example, I used to play whole-class “Jeopardy”-style games; some students avoided answering questions (or even listening to the questions) since they knew their peers would answer for the team. Instead, I prefer to play games with partners or small groups that require each individual to interact with the content or material.

    As they play, I circulate and interact with the students (and record notes about how to tailor my instruction based on my students’ needs). Furthermore, I want the students to be creating some type of product/work during the activity. During a mystery game, students might record their clues and justify their solutions. If I do play a “Jeopardy”-style game, students would each have copies of the game board and would record the questions and answers (as well as color-code for themselves which questions they knew and which they need to study).
  4. Although I think games can be useful, I just don’t have time to plan games.

    Not all games need to be elaborate or terribly time-consuming. Reach out to colleagues and share resources. Keep files of every game you have played so you can use them and modify them in years to come. Enlist the students help (as appropriate) and ask them to develop games for the class; writing a game can be a wonderful learning opportunity for students. Finally, take it slowly; try to find one or two ways to implement a game. Don’t feel like you need to plan games every day or for every class. Give yourself time to develop your gaming repertoire.

Related resources

Five Reasons to Use Games in the Classroom
Strategies That Work: Teaching With Games
Learning Games Archive


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