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Effective Teaching With Games

by Carolyn Forte

If education is interesting and exciting it is more effective than that which is dull and boring. Adults don’t naturally gravitate to the most uninteresting book or movie, yet we often expect our children to learn from materials that would put an insomniac to sleep. The reasons for this are rooted in habit and convention with just a hint of conspiracy: Train the masses to do boring, repetitive tasks for long periods of time and they will make docile workers for the industrial economy. After years as a classroom teacher and many more years teaching my own children, I remain firmly convinced that games of all kinds enhance learning and encourage intellectual development.

For millennia, education has been free form, as fluid as a mountain stream. In the last two centuries the river of education has been blocked by the dam of government controls, strictly contained and regulated. A couple of decades ago, homeschoolers found a way around the dam. It was tough going and many gave up and went back to the familiar waters behind the dam, but those who persevered found an exciting, exhilarating and beautiful world. They found many directions they could take and many tools and methods that could be used to good effect. As homeschooling has become more common, many homeschoolers have begun to return in increasing numbers to the style of the modern school curriculum. Textbooks, teacher manuals, tests, schedules, and prescribed courses -- all the trappings of the school worldview have become common in the homeschool world.

Creative educational thoughts are drying up as parents become too fearful to venture far outside the schoolish world that is familiar. When the texts and tests become oppressive, many parents, concerned about "keeping up," push the books even harder, cutting out activities that are perceived to be of less scholastic value. These often include sports, park days, playtime, hobbies and extra church or club activities. Sadly, this very emphasis on the "curriculum" is often counterproductive. Educational psychologists have found that the first requirement for learning to take place is that the learner must feel safe. Pressure to perform a task that is already causing struggle can cause a block to learning. For many children, a less formal approach in the form of a game or activity can break down the barriers to learning by creating a relaxed, interesting and encouraging environment. Often, waiting a few weeks, months, or even a year before formally introducing a concept can make a difficult learning task into a simple exercise.

As a schoolteacher, I used games and activities extensively to give life and meaning to an otherwise dry curriculum. As a homeschool mom, I used games extensively and found that with a little imagination, it is possible to teach nearly everything (at least to some extent) in a game format. Most people have neither the time nor inclination to invent games, but that is hardly necessary since there are so many great games on the market. You can teach your child to read and understand spelling rules with PhonicsOpoly and practice spelling and vocabulary development with Quiddler and Pick Two. Sentence Says is an incredibly fun way to learn to create sentences while Create-A-Story teaches outlining and creative writing. Bethump’d With Words develops advanced vocabulary in older children while Green Alligators teaches children of all ages descriptive speech. Activities like Mad Libs and Grammar Songs make formal grammar easy and pleasurable. Games can be found to teach everything from alphabetizing to Shakespeare’s plays. There are even games like Phonogram Fun Packet and Make Your Own Opoly that you can customize to teach or reinforce anything you want.

The three main stages of learning are: Initial familiarity, reinforcement (practice) and mastery. There are many ways for a child to become familiar with letters and sounds. My children learned them from alphabet books, board games and by playing letter or word games in the car. (In Los Angeles you pass a hundred signs a minute.) Let’s look at a few games that can be used to teach large segments of language arts in place of textbooks and workbooks.

Very young children begin to learn about words and stories when a parent reads to them and talks to them about the story. Gradually a child can learn to tell the story back to his parent. Child’s Play publishes a beautiful picture book and a game that are both titled The Big Hungry Bear. In the book, the little mouse finds a big ripe strawberry and is concerned about hiding it from The Big Hungry Bear. The mouse finally decides to share the strawberry with the bear and cuts it in half. The game by the same name is really several games of varying difficulty level (no reading necessary), which teach children to put the story in sequence and talk about it.

There are several good games that can be used to teach a child to read without a workbook. PhonicsOpoly is by far the most thorough because it includes the most important spelling rules and has a bonus game of words at high school level. Once you have mastered the first six games, you are reading at least at a fourth grade level. Older children and adults who use the game for remediation will go much higher very quickly.

Quiddler (www.setgame.com) is a card game that has large, extravagantly decorated letters and blends on each card. For the child who loves graphics and color, Quiddler cards give a beautiful introduction to the alphabet. They can be used in many ways besides those in the directions. Letter pairs can be used to create a lotto game or "concentration." Or, pull a card out of the deck and try to name something that begins with that sound (or ends with that sound). Have everyone in turn try to come up with a word using that letter or sound. Once a child has mastered the sounds, the cards can be used to make easy words. This is an introduction to playing according to the game directions. If you get a beginner dictionary for your young player, s/he can begin to find words using his letters, developing dictionary as well as spelling skills.

Once your child has begun to read and spell a little, s/he moves into the reinforcing stage. Now the regular game of Quiddler can be used to reinforce what she has learned about spelling. For older players the game reinforces spelling and, when the dictionary is used, teaches new vocabulary. Make it a practice to have unfamiliar words defined as they are played. As students get older, Quiddler grows with them and their play becomes mastery practice giving their brains an interesting and enjoyable challenge.

One of the keys to using games successfully is being willing to change the rules and allow different modes of play. Children are often better at this than adults. Try to be flexible and creative about the way you play games. New ways of play are all right as long as everyone agrees on the variations before starting. When several grade levels are playing together, try to tweak the rules to give the younger children a break or pair an older person with a young child and play as a team.

Another very popular and versatile letter game is Pick Two, which comes complete with spelling and early reading suggestions. At about the age of eight, a child can play regular Pick Two with up to seven other players who form crosswords with 180 letter tiles in a fast-paced game where no one has to wait for his turn and each plays on his own level. Children, teens and adults can play together without frustration (or boredom) because each player is working on his own constantly changing and growing crossword.

Formal grammar and sentence structure is often a challenge for students. Playing Green Alligators, a game for ages 5 to adult that requires no reading, is a simple but effective way to help children learn to describe nouns and verbs. A player must use describing words to identify an object or describe what the Green Alligator is doing without saying the name of the noun pictured or using the verb. For example, if the Green Alligator is running, the player could say that he is moving fast using his feet. The other players try to guess the correct word to win the card. Thus, the student learns to use adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases in speech in a fun and relaxed, natural manner. At five, he need not learn the formal grammar terms, but he is building skills. Parents can use the game to help older children grasp and practice using the grammatical terms by pointing out that they are using adjectives when describing nouns, and adverbs when telling what the Green Alligator is doing. Prepositional phrases will often come into play too.

Creating complete sentences can be hilarious fun with Sentence Says. In this game a player is dealt up to six letter cards and given a certain length of time to make up a complete sentence according to the directions given for his turn and starting each word in the sentence with one of the letters given. For example: if a player has H, I, P, W, B and must use a proper name, his sentence might be, "Paul was hiding in bed." When the direction card demands an adjective, the sentence might be, "Where is his purple ball?" If the player fails to make a sentence in the allotted time, another player may try.

Once a student is ready for creative writing, Create-A-Story is a painless way to get him or her to put pen to paper. This board game is literally a writing program in a box and the company also publishes two writing workbooks if you feel you need more than the game gives you. By the end of the game, each player has all the elements needed for a complete story. All he has to do is fill out the outline provided and then follow it as he writes his story. A lot of interaction and imagination are encouraged. Players often help each other with plot possibilities as they see each other’s stories unfolding. The players auto-matically learn all the elements necessary for a story as they play.

Finally, vocabulary development is lots of fun using Bethump’d With Words. There are two board versions and a travel edition for this quiz game of advanced vocabulary. The Discovery Edition is for age 9 to adult and is challenging enough to hold everyone’s interest. For more advanced learners (and SAT prep), the senior edition is outstanding.

Math is a subject often accompanied by much angst and gnashing of teeth. Some of these problems are the result of trying to teach too many abstract concepts at too young an age. Young children are concrete thinkers and need lots of real world (see it and touch it) examples before they move into abstract thinking. Games help because they provide concrete lessons to foster understanding and can also be used for reinforcement, making what would otherwise be mind-numbing drill into fun and entertainment.

Chips (www.jaxgames.com) is a great game to introduce young children to addition and to provide reinforcement for first through third graders. This little game fits in a pocket or purse and takes only a few minutes to play. Children and adults alike have great fun with it as they roll the dice and decide what number combinations to use for each addition family. Beginners can count the dice and older children get practice with addition facts. Teens and adults can try strategy for an edge, but there is chance involved, so the outcome is in doubt until the end.

Just as Chips teaches addition facts (and with a slight variation, subtraction), there are games to teach and/or reinforce most math concepts. There are card games, board games, bingo games and quiz games. Some take three minutes and some three hours or more. Mad Math has a two-sided game board to teach addition facts on one side and multiplication on the other. Giant Dice by Child’s Play uses a bingo format and can reinforce addition, subtraction, multiplication or all three. Wonder Number Game is a series of at least ten board games that teach and reinforce odd & even numbers, addition and subtraction, multiplication facts, factors, prime numbers, square numbers, and more, all using strategy games that require little prior knowledge of the mathematical concepts being taught. Its colorful board can be used to teach basic number concepts and facts to beginners, but the strategy games are engaging enough to hold a teen’s interest. Because of the wide age span that it addresses and the variety of games included, it makes an excellent family game that will remain a favorite for years.

Fractions need not be a big roadblock for children who are familiar with them and use them frequently in games and real life (cooking, art, etc.) before being required to manipulate them on paper. From the most basic fraction concepts (Fruit Salad and Vegetable Soup, both by Child’s Play) to recognizing equivalent fractions, decimals and percents (FraperDeck), there are games to help develop understanding and mastery.

An adjunct to math is reasoning and "critical thinking" and there are games for this area too. Set is an exceedingly popular game of reasoning and recognition of patterns and relationships. Six-year-olds can grasp the basic concepts and find simple sets after a few minutes but Set will make the whole family concentrate to find more and more complex patterns. Set is a brain stretcher that develops visual and reasoning skills. Set Enterprises (www.setgame.com) puts a new game on their website every day. Besides the card version, there is also a computer version and an overhead version for classroom teachers.

It is important to understand that children are all different in terms of learning styles and developmental schedules. What one child learns easily at age five, another will still be struggling to understand at age ten. This is normal and no amount of parental prodding, "state standards" or "school reform" will change this. It is possible to hurry a child’s educational development but there are often repercussions. Games can facilitate and enhance learning, but if a child is not ready for a concept, his grasp of it will be incomplete. Playing games is a way to increase familiarity with a subject without being overbearing. True understanding comes in its own time.

Learning styles also play an important part in a child’s development. Understanding Your Child’s Learning Style by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis and Victoria Hodson contains a do-it-yourself profile, which will help you understand how your child learns best. Most people learn well with games because games are safe. There is no punishment for losing. You are not being graded. It’s OK to have fun. We learn better under conditions where we feel safe. However, your choice of games should be informed by your children’s age and learning style. Many people love The Farming Game and play it for days at a time, but others do not have patience for a game that takes hours to play. Some people love games that require lots of conversation, others prefer games that require concentration. Strategy games are great for some, others enjoy games where more luck is involved. It is important to take all these things into consideration before choosing games for your children.

If you find that a game is not working well for you, see if you can modify it so that it is more acceptable. Change the rules to fit your needs or make different modifications for older or younger players. Simplify a game that seems too complex, eliminate the timer if it causes anxiety, forget scoring if that causes strife. You are not a slave to the rules that came with the game; make the game fit your children, not the other way around. Above all, do not force a game on your children. We’re supposed to be having fun, remember? Another caution: Never tell your children that a game is educational unless that is the only way you can pry them away from their workbooks.

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Carolyn Forte and her husband, Martin, have owned and operated Excellence In Education homeschool resource center (www.excellenceineducation.com) in Monrovia, CA, since 1991. All of the games and materials mentioned in the article are available at Excellence In Education.