Friday, October 9, 2009

Playing Games is More Than Having Fun

I know one of my kids favourite pastimes is playing board games or card games during the holidays, and especially "Stratego". That's usually the only time we can get together as a family. But do they love to play games. I guess my kids learned to love playing games from my mother. She is fierce competitor when it comes to games. Thankfully, I was able to tame any extreme "game playing" behaviours in my children, before they morphed into my mother. :) (She knows it, so I'm not telling any family secrets!) However, I truly acknowledge my mother's love for playing games in her senior years. Sadly, the older we get, I think we get crotchety and forget how to have fun and play. There is something appealing about a child's desire for play that I wish for myself. I'm not sure why I been so reflective in my blogs lately.

Dr. Stuart Brown makes some really good points at TedTalks about the importance of play being more than fun(you must know now how much I like TedTalks), so I've embedded the video here:

Back to the subject at hand; there is a place for play in the classroom. It is not to be confined to the playground, the monkey bars, the jungle gyms, or the lighter or easier subject areas either. I really believe that we need to develop youth as multifaceted, whole beings. As much as we develop their intellect, we need to balance it off with the laughter and fun. That's as much an intellectual pursuit as the more serious minded stuff of academia. Just like we balance between critical and creative thinking with application and doing, we need to introduce games and play to balance the serious quest for knowledge and understanding.

When I first started teaching, we played a lot of games in the classroom. I was a trained high school teacher completely out of his element teaching grade 2/3. It was my first teaching job, and I flew by the seat of my pants most of the time. My daybook was mostly filled with scribbles of what I changed on the fly, because what I had planned was often a complete failure. The students I inherited from the previous grade were left unable to read and write, because the teacher spent most of her time behind the desk doing beadwork. So I read, and read, and read to these students. I acted out scenes, changed my voice, entertained mostly! But the students had fun, and one by one, lights went on as they began to associate letters and groupings of letter with words and sounds. So much of this was accomplished with play. We made games of childrens books. We did the same with math, science, social studies, and health. Everything was an object lesson.

If I was to reflect back and think about what the students got out playing games, I would say it was these four things: connection, exploration, engagement, and application.

Connection: I found students connecting game activities with math concepts that we were covering. Connection is big in my books. That's when you see lights going on for students and you see that "I get it" look in their eyes. This is where the learning moved from the passive to the active.

Exploration: Students were able to explore math concepts we were learning in the classroom and see that they were not just numbers, fractions, or formulas, but they had real world relevance. They could explore how these concepts might be found in practical everyday life. It opened their minds to see beyond the pages.

Engagement: Some of the research I read about games suggest that games are a great motivator (Phelps, Egert, & Bayliss: 2009). Well, I come from a philosophical perspective that believes that motivation not only should be intrinsic, but is intrinsic and not extrinsic. While rewards and punishment have been considered extrinsic, the motivation is still internal within the individual, whether it is desire for reward, or fear of punishment. I believe I cannot motivate a child, I can inspire a child. I cannot make them want to do work or play a game. However, I digress! From my experience, I found that games not only help students explore concepts more fully, but gave them an place to engage on a level of desire and enjoyment. As a teacher, it was my role to inspire the students with wonder and fun by joining along with them in the games and not be a bystander.

Application: I also firmly believe that games encourage students to apply a number of skills to real life situations. It gets them trying things for themselves and learning from that experience, in addition to developing some very important teamwork and collaboration skills. Students learn to play and play fair. They learn to share. They learn how to be competitive, yet caring for the others playing. Research also shows this as well. (Vondracek & Pittman: 2002)

These are just a few of the ways, I found games worked in my classroom. Now my challenge is how to translate some of these traditional style game concepts into an online world, and not look cheesy, when students are so used to Wii, PlayStation 3, and more. Games have advanced tremendously from the Commodore 64 Paddle game. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I think the challenge is greater to connect and engage students with low budget games that can't compare to the multi-billion dollar gaming industry that produces such high quality graphical games. I guess that's our challenge.

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