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Historical Perspectives on Games and Education

Posted at: 2014-03-17, 14:51

A brief look at history will bring one to the conclusion that games have long been employed as a means of education. Using the ancient game of chess, noblemen of the Middle Ages learned strategies of war. During the Civil War, volunteers from Rhode Island played American Kriegsspiel, which had originally been created in 1812 for training Prussian officers-of-war.¹ Then, in the early 19th century, came the creation of Kindergarten by Friedrich Fröbel, which was based on learning through play.² Children delighted in his Fröbel Gifts, simple educational toys such as blocks, sewing kits, clay, and weaving materials.

A set of Fröbel Blocks, given to nine year old Frank Lloyd Wright, was the stimulus for his distinguished career in architecture. He stated in his autobiography, “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . in my fingers to this day . . ." What teacher would not desire to inspire a young Frank Lloyd Wright through such simple means?³

Outside distractions, peer pressure, cell phones, lack of interest, and short attention spans all vie for student’s focus. Add varying learning styles to the mix, and not only does the teacher need to be super-human, but despite all of the teacher’s efforts, the child may get shortchanged. 

Games will not only answer the problem of various learning styles, but will hold a child’s interest. Additionally, games have the unique ability to adjust to a variety of skill and ability levels, allowing both the slowest and the smartest students in a class to succeed and enjoy. This creates a personalized learning environment in which the student receives immediate feedback, no waiting for papers to be graded, as well as pride of learning ownership. Games are found to be of particular value with special education students.⁴ In a society where smart phones are mastered by the age of three, traditional education needs an assist.

But will the games educate? According to a study done in 2011, post-game-training tests resulted in a nine to twenty percent higher score in areas such as retention, knowledge, and self-efficacy, than those of the control group.⁵ Additionally, fewer students tend to be distracted when engaged in game play. Motivation in the classroom also shows a clear increase with the use of games. Some games can even inspire leadership skills.⁶

Age seems to be a factor. While younger children may respond better to the “stealth factor,” not realizing their play is teaching them, by middle school students actually respond better to knowing the learning opportunities of games. Common among all ages is the desire for ease of use, teacher feedback, and teacher encouragement.

Whether card games, board games, or computer games…for geography, history, math, or language, games help make learning fun. Additionally, games in the classroom help to break up the monotony, add novelty, and give students a feeling of power in an otherwise restricting environment. A traditional curriculum augmented by games can not only increase fun, learning, and attention, but may also act as a teacher’s assistant, allowing individualized attention when needed. 

One common factor in the success of games in education is the involvement of the teacher. Teacher interaction, teacher feedback, and teacher encouragement all contribute greatly to the success of the use of games in the classroom. In fact, game-based-learning research has shown that learning from games, together with teacher feedback, results in the deepest learning.⁷

As teachers, we have goals to inspire; facilitate mastery; mentor; encourage students to find their voice, and articulate and follow their values. By utilizing the historical method of teaching with games, coupled with traditional classroom education, and incorporating new technology in the form of computerized games, we can provide an unprecedented education for our students.

4) Integrating Serious Games in the Educational Experience of Students with Intellectual Disabilities: Towards a Playful and Integrative Model, Maria Saridaki and Constantinos Modras, 
5) A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games, Traci Sitzman, Personnel Psycology, Summer 2011, Volumn 64, No. 2, 489-528,
6) The Effects of Modern Mathematics Computer Games on Mathematics Achievement and Class Motivation, Kebritchi, Mansureh, Hiruimi, Atsusi, Bai, Haiyan, Computers and Education, September, 2010, Volumn 22, No. 2, 427-443
7) Digital Game-Based Learning: Impact of Instructions and Feedback on Motivation and Learning Effectiveness, Erhel, Jamet, Computers and Education, September 2013, Volumn 67, 156-167

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