Games as a powerful learning tool

Using board games as a teaching tool? Heidi van der Westerlaken does that in her classroom and sees the children grow. Heidi is a teacher of group 5 and the Minerva group, a class for gifted and talented children with a special need, and coordinator of gifted and talented children at primary school Helder Camara in Teteringen. I talk to Heidi about the power of games, how she uses games and about the system she has set up for her school together with her colleague Marloes Aarsman.

Why do you choose games?

“All mammals learn naturally through play: little tigers that frolic with each other and learn to mark out their territory that way. And human children who learn through play from an early age and thus prepare themselves for (social) situations they will encounter later on. In my opinion, we should link up with this much more by using games at school. The great advantage of games is that they motivate and retain attention. This is because of the design and because there is competition. In class, my pupils are not so concerned with whether they achieve a 7 or 8, but a game challenges them to still score that half point higher.”

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How do you use the games?

“Marloes and I use games to train skills, especially executive and social skills. I let the children choose a game themselves or give them a game if I have a learning goal in mind for a child. It is essential to discuss it afterwards, because as a teacher you have to make the translation. You describe explicitly what you have seen and you ask questions: how did it go, how did you experience it, how did it feel beforehand and how did it feel when you noticed you were doing it? If you don’t do that explicitly, the children won’t make a connection. Then it just remains a fun game.

How children approach a game in the Minerva group is often recognisable behaviour for the own teacher: starting a game without reading the rules or starting work without thinking beforehand. And then stopping and getting angry. In the group, I pick up on this: we take the rules of the game and read them together. While we are reading, you can see the penny drop: ‘Oh, it has to be like this! And then they start playing very fanatically. The other day, a pupil came to me for a new game: ‘Teacher, now I am going to read the rules first.

A game allows you to see a child from a different angle, which sometimes provides the teacher with surprising insights. I had this experience myself with a dyslexic pupil who was totally unmotivated to read. In class, it was all about reading and everything was difficult. But during a game she was very fanatical and I realised that she could really push herself and keep her attention. It was an eye-opener for me to see her apart from her reading problems.

In the own classroom, the teacher can refer back to the game that was played in the Minerva group: do you remember how you approached that game? ‘I saw in that game that you thought very well beforehand. Could you do the same now?’ You remind children of their experience of success at the game and so they know that they can do it. And that gives them a good feeling. We are working on the mindset: learning from your mistakes, daring to ask for help, persevering.

Could you also use games to replace ordinary lessons?

“Well, we don’t. We really train skills. Maths, spelling and languages are skills that have to be taught. By the way, our maths method also includes many games, so we don’t need to replace them. But social skills training might well be. There is an overlap in this area. I think there are more opportunities to use games, we can get a lot more out of them.”

How do you choose a game? What conditions do you think a good game should fulfil?

“Two things are important to me. First of all, a game should not be about luck alone, as in Goose-board. We are looking for games that appeal to the executive functions. For example, a game for one person requires goal-oriented behaviour and sustained attention. Organisation and planning are exercised more with strategic thinking games. For cooperative games, cooperation is essential and response inhibition is practiced in reaction games.

A second requirement is purely practical. The maximum duration of the game is 45 minutes. You should be able to play in an hour. This does not mean that the first time you play it lasts 45 minutes. Understanding, reading the rules, trying things out, all in all, the students will spend more time then. Once they understand a game and can play it themselves, it should fit in an hour.”