How I Use Games in the Classroom

Games build community in the classroom.
Classroom games are a powerful resource in my teacher toolbox. I begin every new year from day one, teaching at least one new game. As opportunities present themselves, I'll continue to add additional games to our repertoire. Before long, I have built a working library of games to use for the rest of the year!

There are many beneficial reasons to use games in the classroom.

Games make great icebreakers. They are one of the quickest ways I know to grab kids' attention and change the classroom dynamic. Check out how I used a simple game to build community in a potentially challenging situation.

It was the end of a school year, and I had just been hired at a school where I’d always wanted to teach. Naturally, I jumped at the chance when the principal invited all new-hire teachers to visit. I knew this was a great opportunity to set the tone for next year. I would be replacing a well-loved teacher, and I knew I would only get one chance to make a good first impression.

After introducing myself to these soon-to-be 6th graders, the next words out of my mouth were, “…and I LOVE teaching math!”

Hmmm… They looked skeptical.

With permission from their teacher, I took the opportunity to teach them Hi-Lo, a place value game I faithfully teach the first day of each new school year. The game was a hit! They especially liked the fact that they could beat me! I’m happy to report that the kids decided it might work out after all.

36 Bingo, PEMDAS Bowling, Escape the Time Machine

Introduce a new concept with a game. Hi-Lo not only broke the ice in my story above, but I also used it as an introduction to probability later on.

Games reinforce and extend skills. Games can kick it up a notch beyond basic recall and comprehension to a deeper connection of skills taught. Motivation is high as kids apply what they’ve learned while attempting to beat or win the game.

    BONUS! Games are one way to answer the age-old question: When are we ever going to need this?

Games offer practice with problem-solving & following directions. I know my kids can never get enough practice with either of these learning skills. I used the game, Quiddler, to practice following directions as they learned to play a new game. You can read about it here. Games require them to think, evaluate the situation and plan their next moves.

Games offer built-in differentiation. They level the playing field where anyone can win.

Games sponsor teamwork through collaboration and communication. Escape Rooms create excellent opportunities where kids pool their knowledge and resources to escape an unplanned situation.

8 Ways I Use Games in the Classroom

Teacher Tips on using games in the classroom.

1. When I Have a Substitute Teacher

What better way to fit in some extra practice than to schedule a math game for a guest teacher. 36 Bingo is one of my favorite games to leave because of its flexibility. By changing the number of winners in each category, time and accuracy are crucial in snagging one of those coveted, winning slots. I frequently put a student in charge of managing the game and helping the guest teacher record the winners.

Teacher Tip: When using games with guest teachers, be sure your kids clearly understand how to play the game and have played it several times before.

2. When There are a Few Extra Minutes Before a Transition

This is a good time to have several fun-fact type games on hand. I have a collection of National Geography Bee questions from the actual Bee I use for a quick Jeopardy-like challenge. Or, I might have kids pull out their atlases for a fast scavenger hunt. (EX: Find all the cities that share our latitude.) I’ll use the event cards from the history game, Chronology in a whole class challenge as we try to successfully order 10 events.

Teacher Tip: Just because a game was designed to be used one way doesn’t mean you can’t use the parts to create a new game.

3. When I’ve Got a Shortened Schedule

You know those days. They’ve planned an assembly, a field trip, a late start, and class periods are 30 minutes or less. Why not make it fun? I pull out the games.

4. When the Lesson Just. Isn’t. Working.

We’ve all been there. Plan A needs some work. I know it. They know it. It’s time for Plan B: Pull out a game!

5. In Stations or Early Finisher Centers

Math and geography games offer high-interest additional practice opportunities. I use games that could be played in small groups or alone. Ongoing jigsaw puzzles are great for those visual-spatial learners.

6. Before or After a Holiday Break

What can I possibly accomplish right before (or even after) a holiday? I’ll pull out a game because I still want to feel like we’re accomplishing something.

Teacher Tip: Escape Rooms are perfect in these situations, as well. They offer a variety of opportunities to introduce or review concepts. Kids love the chance to work in groups. What kid wouldn’t want to Escape the School or The Time Machine?

7. When I Want to Change Up Math Homework

The bane of my existence is encouraging kids to have quick recall of their math facts. I’ve found giving them a reason to have quick recall is a better incentive than timed tests. Math games add a new purpose for learning their facts - to help them win the game!

Two of my favorite go-to games are 36 BINGO and PEMDAS Bowling. I like them because they can be played alone or with someone else repeatedly, making them good homework opportunities. They are easily differentiated based on the kids’ ability levels. Either of these is a terrific alternative to timed tests and flashcards.

Teacher Tip: When sending games home, it’s a good idea to include an abbreviated set of instructions and make sure they have the tools they need to play the games.

8. It’s Time for Review

Games create excellent test prep situations. I’ve been known to string a bunch of games and game-like activities into rounds, separate the class into teams, and have them compete against each other for a ridiculously high number of points. Think of it as a competition of Olympic proportions. Everything is self-checked or has an obvious end. Team captains report team points at the end of each period.

Using games for review creates a highly energized, positive-learning situation where students are focused on the tasks at hand. They have no idea they’re actually using resources, following directions, and practicing skills because they’re simply having way too much fun.

Truly, games afford the best opportunity to observe your kids, in a slightly unguarded moment, as they process, share, deliberate, strategize, and execute their next move. So bring on the games, and let’s have some fun! I’d love to hear how you use games in your classroom.

“We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” Benjamin Franklin

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