The Effect of Board Games on Learning
Jessica Rice, High School Humanities

As a child, I loved to play Candyland, Monopoly, the Game of Life, and Guess Who. Even when I was a teenager and often balked at the idea of spending a Friday night with my parents, I could usually be persuaded to play a game or two of Scrabble. As an adult, however, I hadn’t expanded on my board game interests. I was vaguely aware that there was a growing resurgence of board games for adults, but I didn’t explore this new world until the Covid-19 pandemic when I found myself with much more time at home and a desire to avoid spending even more hours looking at a computer or phone screen. 

Over the past year, I’ve played several new-to-me board games. I spent hours reading the 40-page rulebook for a game called Twilight Struggle, in which the United States and USSR attempt to gain dominance over regions of the world during the Cold War. Many of my Saturdays for the past year have been spent trying to ensure a U.S. victory in the game. (I have yet to win a single game, but I remain optimistic.) I’ve also tried newer children’s board games with my 9-year-old niece and 6-year-old nephew. Our favorite is Otrio, a tic-tac-toe type game that is engaging and challenging for both kindergarteners and high school English teachers alike. 

Board games can promote so many of the cognitive and socio-emotional skills that we want our students to learn. I am fascinated by how our brains engage with the world, and that fascination doesn’t stop when I walk out of the classroom. When I’m playing Twilight Struggle, and I must make strategic decisions about which countries to influence to prevent a nuclear event, I’m also thinking about the skills I’m using or learning as I’m playing. In a single decision about where to place an influence marker, I’m planning out multiple steps ahead, trying to predict what steps my opponent will take, working to achieve multiple (and sometimes competing) objectives and assessing the probability of potential events. I’m also working on communicating clearly with my opponent when we disagree on the interpretation of the rules or managing my frustration when I lose and the game ends with nuclear annihilation. These are all skills and habits that we want to support our students in developing.

The research on board gameplay confirms that there are cognitive and socio-emotional benefits. In a 2020 literature review of research on board games and learning, Rebecca Yvonne Bayeck concludes, “Board games are spaces for mathematical learning, for social interactions, computational thinking and for engaging in multiple practices" . Board games also enable learning of various content and can motivate players to learn more about a topic. From the data, it is evident that board games are spaces that allowed players to engage in learning and demonstrate the understanding of complex concepts” As educators, we all hope to create environments where students engage in learning and demonstrate the understanding of complex concepts, so research like this makes me wonder about applications to our classroom. 

Finding hands-on activities for the English language arts classroom can be a challenge, but I’m always looking for ways to incorporate activities that go beyond reading, writing, speaking and listening. I’ve found that simpler tabletop games are useful to review content. My Humanities Foundations class recently played Jenga to review grammar concepts. Like the traditional Jenga game, students had to select one block at a time to remove from the tower without toppling it. Additionally, for each block they selected, they had to complete a task for a sentence. For example, if a student chose a red block from the tower, she would need to identify the coordinating conjunction in a sentence before she could remove the red block. To be successful in this game, students not only need to use spatial reasoning skills to select and remove blocks, but they also need to recall definitions of grammatical terms and apply that understanding to identification. Although Jenga is a competitive game, I found that the students ended up working more collaboratively: assisting one another in completing the tasks, offering strategies to which block to remove and celebrating as a team when the tower remained upright after a particularly precarious removal. 

We can all make more time for play in our lives, in and out of the classroom. I hope to find more opportunities to play games with my students, and I really hope to win a game of Twilight Struggle!