Classroom games have transformed my students’ ease with the curriculum. I’m not talking Monopoly or TiddlyWinks. (Many a Friday night was ruined by tears or tantrums by me and my stepbrother respectively, thanks to those two games.) No — I’m talking about games that ratchet up your students’ understanding of your daily objectives. If used well, such games can make an enormous difference in your classroom.
Why use Classroom Games
Students learn better when they are engaged and smiling. As any teacher can tell you, when a child has something on her mind — be it a recent argument with a friend or a sick animal at home — they cannot grasp what you’re teaching. Not long-term, anyway. It goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
As teachers learn in their schooling, Maslow was a psychologist who published a paper in 1943 entitled, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In it, he described his studies of notable minds such as those of Frederick Douglass, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jane Adams, as well as the top 1% of college students. He found that for a person to become self-actualized, she first needed to have fundamental needs met.
First and second levels
First the Physiological needs must be addressed: clothing, shelter, warmth, sleep, air, water and food. If these are not fulfilled, then the person will remain focused on meeting those needs, for obvious reasons.
The next level is Safety, which includes financial safety, personal safety, and health and well-being. Anyone who has struggled with any of these needs in their life knows one will perseverate on such a rudimentary challenge until it is overcome. Focusing on anything else is very trying.
If you have students who have not had these first two needs met satisfactorily, you have doubtless witnessed their understandable lack of drive. This can often appear as listlessness, depression, along with a host of other troubling behaviors. At this point, games will not help the children succeed. They may distract them, but the basic needs must be met before the child has a hope of turning her attention to performing well in the classroom. Kids in this predicament are in survival mode.
Third and Fourth Levels
Once those needs are met, however, and they have a solid foundation of the first two levels, games can serve as a diving board to springing them towards the uppermost level of self-actualization, a stuffy word for a wonderful thing. But let’s circle back to that in a minute.
The third level is Social Belonging. This is a tricky one, because it can often bring the whole set of cards tumbling down if it isn’t met. Children need to feel that they have solid supportive relationships and that they belong. This includes friendships and family relationships, but it can also include other large or small groups such as sports groups, clubs, co-workers, even gangs. A mentor or colleague can even provide this level of social belonging.
This leads to the fourth level of Esteem, which refers to self-esteem and a feeling of being respected. Maslow pointed out that there are two versions of this: the lower version is ego-driven and wants attention, recognition and respect. The higher and more lasting version is based on self-confidence, mastery, independence, and freedom. Most of us toggle between the two but are genuinely happier people when the latter triumphs.
This is the fun one: Self-Actualization. This is when a person is reaching her full potential. If you are an athlete, for example, this is seen as being “in the zone” and pushing yourself to your best performance. When you become all-consumed with a project in an excited “I-love-this!” way, you are at Level 5. It’s a really exciting place to be!
How classroom games bounce you up the hierarchy
Classroom games first address level three: Social Belonging. When you place kids in groups or partnerships that are well-balanced, students naturally make close connections with each other. The pressure is off because the focus is on the game, not directly on each other. So as they learn the game and skill together, with a dash of fun competition thrown in, the child feels a sense of belonging and friendly intimacy with the other person.
It’s a real kick to witness this transformation. You can see their body language change drastically, particularly in the shyer kids. Their faces are open and smiling, their body is more relaxed. Everything looks looser.
And with this relaxation and fun, they quickly master the underlying skill the game is teaching, much faster than if they were doing more mundane worksheets. (Not that written work is bad — it definitely has its place — but classroom games accelerate the learning curve upwards.)
This newfound mastery of the skill is Level Four, Esteem. They feel confident and own the new skill. This, again, is such a thrill to watch unfold. Students who first saw the skill as challenging are brimming with pride after attaining mastery.
The how of classroom games
So that’s the why. The how requires a bit of experimentation until you find the sweet spot.
I’ll schedule at least fifteen minutes a day (usually more) for targeted classroom games. After a mini-lesson, the kids will usually do work either independently, in partnerships, or with a teacher. Once that is done, they can play the game. (I’ll quickly model the game with them at the end of the mini-lesson.) All the necessary tools for the game will be laid out so that they can go at it when they’re ready.
Picking a skill
On some days, the skill will match what they are doing in class. For example, last week we worked on the different methods of subtraction. My gut, though, told me that not all the kids were quite ready for subtraction games. So I gave them two rounding games to choose from instead, as we’d done rounding the week before and they still needed to practice that skill more. This week, now that they’re more fluent subtractors, I’ll use multi-digit subtraction games to cement that skill into their long-term memory. Or maybe I’ll give them a choice of subtraction or rounding. I’ll wait and assess how they’re doing on Monday before making a final decision.
In the classroom games I’ve designed, I differentiate the levels so that kids that need more support get it and those who need more challenge can push themselves to a higher level. Sometimes I’ll assign them, but more often I’ll let them choose. Choice is a powerful motivator, and they tend to choose the level that feels right to them.
Organizing classroom games
The following method of organizing classroom games allows me to quickly access the games I have so that I can plan efficiently, but also make last-minute changes based on formative assessments.
I make many of my classroom games and also buy from other educators on Teachers pay Teachers.
First I print the boards/directions/answer keys.
Then I laminate and cut them out.
Next, I use a glue gun to glue one of the gameboards to the front of a 2-pocket folder.
And finally, I put all the classroom game goodies inside.
I color code all my classroom subjects. Social studies classroom games are in green folders, science games are in yellow, reading games are in orange, and math games are in blue.
To keep them organized and ready to go, I use color-coded tubs in my teacher closet. Because the cover of each folder has a copy of the gameboard, I can find what I’m looking for very quickly.
Now it’s time to hear from you, lovely! In the comments below, tell us: Have you tried this yet? If so, how did it work? If not, what subject and skill area might you try first?
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