Thursday, 9 April 2015

Dear Reader,

Do you enjoy board games? Have you ever tried them in the classroom?

Board games have fast become one of my favourite activities, both in and out of the classroom.  And, before you ask, we're not talking Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or Snakes and Ladders here - board games have enjoyed a magnificent renaissance in recent years, and there are some truly excellent games out there that require co-operation, strategy, persuasion, and even full-on role play.

As an introvert, I love board games because they provide a structure to my social interaction that sweeps away the need for chit-chat and making stilted conversation, and opens up a world that I feel comfortable inhabiting, where there are both explicit game rules and implicit gaming rules that make me feel safe.  I have a taste for logic but also creativity that is sated by the simple act of  exploring the boundaries of what is possible within the rules of the game and what actions might coincide to constitute a cohesive strategy.  If you're still wondering what I'm talking about, try looking at the Shut Up and Sit Down site, which reviews board games in such enthusiastic style I'd be surprised if you didn't come away wanting to try one.  There is a great introduction to board gaming here if you don't know where to start!

As a teacher, I love board games a little less, because they pose logistical problems.  You have three basic strategies available: adapt or expand a game for whole-class use, play several versions of the same game all at once, or have different games going on at the same time. I'll discuss the first two below, with examples of games I might recommend.  However, what I will say here is that (and I cannot emphasise this enough) board games promote courtesy, ethics and good social skills when taught correctly, and one small idea can ensure that playing them in the classroom is much more enjoyable for everyone: write a list of gaming rules before you begin.  Every session, every time, until the children can come up with them spontaneously and hopefully have begun to internalise them.  

Some rules I like to begin with are things like 'take turns', 'play honestly' and, perhaps the most important ,'win or lose gracefully'.  As part of the gaming protocol, my students shake each other by the hand and solemnly utter 'gg' after every game, just to underline the point that we all had fun regardless.  I would also suggest not rewarding winners as a matter of course, because the temptation to cheat in children is strong enough anyway, and a large part of what I try to teach as part of board gaming is a personal conscience and enjoyment of the game for its own sake.

Games that can work well as a whole-class activity

Word On The Street: essentially a clever strategy-based spelling game, this is a game with two teams but it is usually better to split into sub-teams within this.  I like to encourage the use of dictionaries to help and have made my own game cards to help reinforce key vocabulary or grammar. It also helps to remind students the difference between a consonant and a vowel. It is available from Amazon here, or I have made a whole -class version available to print  (with kind permission from the publishers) here.

Fauna: the game that combines biology, geography and maths in one engaging bundle, this can be a little trickier to play as a whole class but for me it is very much worth the effort.  You need to either take a picture of the game board and project it onto an interactive whiteboard, or print out paper copies for each group or pair of students.  They then try to guess/estimate the length, height and weight of each animal given, along with where in the world they think it is found.  Points are awarded for near-misses as well as direct hits, and you can adapt the rules as you wish to suit your classroom (for example, allow teams or pairs to score the same area as others).  It is available on Amazon here.

Wits and Wagers (Family version): full of interesting tangents to explore, this game teaches mathematical estimation and is one in which I learn something new every time.  I enjoy the opportunities it provides to stop and teach little bits of mathematical interest here and there, and also like the way it reinforces basic numeracy in terms of measurement and estimation.  I get the students to write down their guesses on a mini-whiteboard in teams or pairs, and then we write them in order on the classroom whiteboard (itself an interesting mathematical exercise).  Then students can 'bet' against the most likely answer and can therefore score points, even if their initial guess was way out.  You can play two different versions of the winning rule: either the closest guess wins (sometimes this is harder to determine that it sounds), or the closest that doesn't exceed the actual value, which promotes more conservative guessing.  It is available here from Amazon.

Snake Oil: a favourite with my current class of 6-7 year-olds, this game is about salesmanship and persuasion, and contains a good pinch of silliness that we all can appreciate.  It encourages thinking on your feet and real creativity, and we play a version where each pupil has one minute to give a speech at the front of the class, after which we all vote.  No adaptations are needed for whole-class play and it works with the whole age range.  You can also use this game as an excellent starting point for a lesson on marketing and advertising. My own problem is stopping it, as pupils want to carry on all day!  Available here from Amazon.

Games that can work well if you have multiple duplicates

Dixit: a creative game of allusions that feels like you've stepped into a Chagall painting, this game works best when played with 4-6 pupils and, once you've explained the rules, should be simple enough to run smoothly in small independent groups, with only occasional refereeing.  I have also used the cards from the game to play all sorts of modified versions, including storytelling games. It is available here from Amazon.

Telestrations: an amalgam of Chinese whispers and Pictionary, this game is best played with 6-8 players and encourages drawing and spelling skills.  It is playable with any age group that can read reasonably well (I would suggest Year 1 upwards) and can be utterly hilarious.  I prefer to play it with no scoring, just a 'show and tell' session at the end.    It is available from Amazon here.

Timeline: a history game that also contains an element of logic and estimation, there are multiple versions of this game available (inventions, music and cinema, historical events).  It uses a very simple concept of chronology but can be immensely challenging, even as an adult!  The game gets progressively harder as you increase the size of your timeline and have to try and fit new cards into increasingly narrow slots.  This game also provides a huge array of opportunities to stop and discuss interesting ideas, or send pupils away to research them.  It is available here from Amazon.  They are also bringing out several other versions under the Cardline name, which look interesting.

This is just a small idea of some of the excellent games available and is by no means exhaustive.  The reviewers over at The Dice Tower have also covered this subject pretty extensively, albeit with something of an American spin, here.  I would also love to hear from you if you have a question or a recommendation of your own.  

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