I have long sung the praises of games in the classroom. As we begin our school year together, they help me get to know my students, understand their reasoning skills, and introduce healthy debate. Games provide excellent opportunities to move around the room and practice the soft skills necessary to be a productive citizen such as camaraderie, decision making, thinking on your feet, and the all-important: handling successes and failure gracefully.
Choose Games that Highlight Different Students' Skills
This year I made the decision to be more specific in my use of games with my fifth graders. First, I wanted students to become more appreciative of the strengths and weaknesses we all bring to the classroom. I chose two games that highlight very different skills: WordAround is a fast moving word game and Gravity Maze requires spatial reasoning and planning. My idea sprouted from the experience I had playing these games with my family. Two of us dominated the word game, much to the dismay of my youngest and ambivalence of my husband. When we started Gravity Maze, the tables turned and my husband and youngest won definitively. I wanted to repeat this process with my students because I found it to be a perfect representation of different skills we all have.
I introduced both games during our morning meeting. Before we started, I asked students to predict which game they would be better at, and why. During our center rotations for the day, they had the opportunity to play each game. To conclude, students reflected on their predictions and experiences. Many were surprised to find the game they thought to be easier was not! This was the perfect segue into a discussion about the various skills we all bring to the classroom.
Praise Perseverance Instead of Focusing on Winning
On a different day, I brought out another game that looks much easier than it is. Two children were chosen to go head-to-head. The class’ attention was riveted on these two students struggling to finish first. Quite by accident, I brought up how impressed I was with the temperament of both boys. Backstory: I had previously taught them both in pre-kindergarten, when we had spent a significant portion of the year learning impulse control and anger management. However, playing this game, they were smiling as they worked to beat each other to the finish. After a trial run, during which neither boy won, we had another great conversation. This class discussion centered around feeling frustrated, rushed, panicked, or angry, and how to handle those difficult feelings. We discussed how to positively work through complicated emotions and stay rational. Since we had that discussion, my students view challenge in a more positive way.
Using Games to Break Down Communication Barriers
The final way I decided to use games this year was for engaging those students who I saw as on the fringe. Teachers have long invited students back to the classroom as a reward for good behavior or as punishment for bad. I invited students back just to get to know them better. The first student I invited was a prototype of defiance. He started the school year angry and he would start most days in a funk. This sometimes improved after lunch but often not. He avoided schoolwork, wouldn’t interact with peers, and was approaching the point of total disengagement. I knew I had to do something. I invited him back to the room to learn a game new to both of us, not knowing if he’d even say yes. He did.
We took the game out, read the directions, and began. He was receptive and strategic. After the first couple of turns, we started to talk about things outside of the game. Eventually, he shared some of his triggers with me, and I was able to lay out some of my non-negotiables. Was everything perfect from then on out? Resounding no. We are still working. But in the end, I know my effort helped our relationship a bit. I’ve not done harm by opening up lines of communication.
Using the same game, I reached out to a girl who seemed socially withdrawn. We played the game together, and when I knew she knew it well, I asked her to teach it to a peer. She was happy to oblige. On a different occasion, I pulled two children who had had a small conflict the day prior. Under my supervision, they learned the game together. It served as a bonding experience and a pro-social tool to promote respect and communication.
Adding games to my everyday routine has fostered an element of fun and adventure. Students at every age are peer motivated, and for my classroom, including games has created a space where kids feel excited to work through challenges. My hope is that this transfers into the academic realm, but even if it doesn’t, my students have sharpened their interpersonal skills.
Kristin Crouch has been teaching elementary school students for fourteen years. She is an organizer for Kids Need Mentors, a nationwide program that facilitates over three hundred author-classroom pairings. Kristin is a mom and grandmother whose idea of the perfect day consists of coffee, a good book, and some very competitive games played with her family.