What’s the Big Deal About Board Games?

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Every teacher can tell you that one of the hardest things to do is to catch and hold each student’s interest, especially in the age where information and technology are at their fingertips and they are accustomed to LCD screens vying for their attention. Inspired by a good friend of mine, I decided to attempt to take my teaching to the next level, and looked towards the ever growing world of Board Gaming.

Nope, not another endless game of Monopoly or Life. Not Uno, not Yahtzee, not any of those games that everyone has sitting and collecting dust on their shelf at home.

I am talking about games that require you to think, strategize, make decisions, take risks and keep your wits about you. As an added bonus they also have unique themes and fabulous artwork!

I had a few old “stand by” games that I used with students when I needed to fill an extra five or ten minutes, and they ALWAYS enjoyed them: Set, Rumis, and Yamodo. The first required students to locate unique sets using logical reasoning and visualization. The second is basically a 3D version of the popular game Blokus. The last is a game that has players use their imagination to define and draw out made up words.  I found that besides being highly competitive and fun, the kids seemed to be more “awake”  when I started a class with one of these games to get their mind going. I was intrigued.

Along came a rainy summer day, and an invitation by a good friend to come over for a game day with all of our kids. Her oldest daughter wanted to play Settlers of Catan and they needed at least one more player.  Having nothing else to do, we went and had an amazing time. As my students know, I have the tendency to get slightly addicted to video games, and adding this new board game dimension was just a bonus. I immediately wanted to play again. I purchased my own copy the very next day and entered into the realm of board game geeks.

Now, I’m just a rookie, and know next to nothing about board games as compared to my friends. However, I immediately saw how beneficial these could be in the classroom. I have the luxury of working with small groups of gifted students, so I decided to start there. As a reward one week, I brought in my Settlers of Catan game to try out with a group of students. Within five minutes they were hooked.

“So, Mrs. Tucci, it’s kind of like we’re Pilgrims. We need to build houses, take care of our farms, and trade in order to be the most successful settler.”

Um. Why yes, just like the Pilgrims. Why did I never think of this? What other gems of wisdom can students get from playing games?

Now, of course, this is a very simplified version of Settlers of Catan, and a romanticized version of Pilgrims, but the thought occurred to me — these children learned so much about basic economics, supply and demand, trade and settlement location in one short hour. More than they could have ever learned from me in a lecture, or web hunt of the same length of time. Why couldn’t I use this to teach concepts? There are many more board games out there. I was certain I could find something.

It didn’t take long.

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The fifth grade disease unit was preceded by playing the game Pandemic. For years I had tried to explain how diseases must be contained so that epidemics and pandemics did not become an issue. I had taught them about the CDC and the jobs that each person had to do. It took weeks. Within an hour of playing Pandemic, my entire fifth grade group completely GOT IT. All of it. They understood how it took an entire team of specialists to cooperate in order to end the spread of infection and plan strategies for eradication. They also could visualize how quickly diseases spread, and got a healthy dose of world geography as well. I saw Curriculum Standards all over the place.

The best part, my two favorite questions as they are exiting the classroom — “When can we play again?” and “What are we playing next?”

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Benefits of Board Games for Gifted Students

Just like every other kid, gifted students are  trying to make it through the delicate web of social interactions at school, and some are more successful than others. Because of their advanced intellect, and ability to pick things up quickly, frustration can set it as they look around and not be able to understand why everyone else doesn’t just “get it” like they do. The more highly gifted a child is, the more likely they are to have social and emotional adjustment issues and sometimes an inability to make friends. I have found that using the games in my class, even though it’s just for an hour, has first and foremost made them have to work on their social skills — patience, taking turns, sportsmanlike behavior, honesty, being a good winner AND a good loser…. It’s not always easy when you are the person who is USED to winning all of the time.

One thing that all Gifted students have in common is asynchronous development. This means that they may be able to have a highly technical conversation about dinosaurs or computer programming, but they don’t realize they have to look both ways before crossing the street. It’s frustrating to a lot of teachers because they “expect” a gifted student to be able to be somewhat perfect, all the time. Which is of course, impossible. But, these are excellent qualities of gifted students that make them good “gamers” – divergent/creative thought process, rapid learning rate, and analytical thinking.

Gifted students thrive on having constant mental stimulation. You might find them watching Discovery or History Channel documentaries, browsing the encyclopedia, looking up Mythbuster clips on YouTube, or building complex imaginative structures with their Legos. Candyland will bore them to tears. They typically despise games that are based on luck — why should they play if it is only the roll of the dice that determines the winner? They don’t even need to engage their brain, let along sit still.

But hand them a strategy game? Look out!

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Strategy games in the classroom with gifted students require them to think ahead, make plans, consider causal relationships, make predictions, solve puzzles, determine probability, and evaluate their opponents’ behavior and likelihood of their actions. These are all skills that they need in decision making in real world situations. The winner is determined by using their wits with their decision making and strategy — NOT the luck of the dice or the cards.

They simply can’t get enough of it! 🙂

[Note: Is your child begging you to buy them one of the games we’ve been playing? Check here for more information!]

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