In this edition of Meeple Speak, designer Helaina Cappel talks a little bit about board games in the classroom.

Welcome to another edition of Meeple Speak. In this edition, our guest writer is Helaina Cappel, designer of the game Foodfighters and one woman force behind Kids Table Board Gaming. On top of designing and running a board game publisher company, she is also a Middle School Math Teacher. In this article, she touches on using board games in the classroom.

Games Aren’t Just For Indoor Recess

By Helaina Cappel

We don’t often think of tabletop games in the classroom as a teaching or learning tool. In fact, when I think of games in the classroom, it reminds me of indoor recess and rewards for good behaviour. Believe it or not, games are beginning to creep their way into many Math, Language, and Geography lessons (the list of subject areas could go on and on); I, for one, am all for it.

At an institutional level, educators today value higher-order thinking skills such as analyzing, evaluating, and creating. We no longer believe that remembering facts and regurgitating information are useful in today’s (and tomorrow’s) job market. This shift occurred because any information people require these days is literally at their fingertips. My job as an educator is less to teach kids information and more to teach kids what to do with information. When we play games, we analyze, we make decisions, we predict, we plan, we manipulate, we socialize, we communicate by various means, and we think mathematically. I don’t believe there is a better way to teach kids how to use higher order thinking skills than by playing table top games.

At the beginning of every school year, the first thing I work on with my students is building a community of learners in a collaborative learning environment. This year I am using the game Forbidden Island to help me. After playing the game several times, we discuss what collaboration looks like. I usually get: utilising each person’s skill set to solve problems, collaborative goal setting, and communication. By the second or third game, they get the hang of it, and are working together beautifully. The most amazing part of it is that without prompting, they end up debriefing how the game could have gone better (even when they win). Debriefing is added to our list of collaborative behaviours.

As the school year progresses, I sneak games in here and there. Since I teach Science and Technology, using games that have kids think about spatial awareness helps them with their own designs. Animal Upon Animal is one such game. Watching the careful placement of each animal helps students to see how the design of a single piece can be integral to an entire structure. Careful placement of parts makes the structure of the whole.

Finally, teaching mathematics without using “math games” is easy. For theoretical probability, the first (and probably the most popular) game in my class is Catan. (Catan is a game where players are competing to build civilizations on a shared island, and dice are rolled to generate resources.) Of course, the dice are a large part of our discussion on theoretical probability. But so are the ports on the outside of the island. Talking about why it is better to have a wood port when you’ve got two settlements on a wood hex with the number 8, can be a very deep mathematical conversation to have with a 12 year old.

Games that teach don’t necessarily have to be educational. I think it is more fun to think about the topic you want to cover and then find a good tabletop game that integrates that topic. You typically don’t have to search for that long before you can come up with a list of great games. By the end of the school year, my students have learned a great deal from being in my classes. They just don’t realize how much of it came from playing tabletop games.