Why games are important for learning

It has been said that play is children’s work; the thing they do to find fulfilment in their day to day lives. It provides opportunities to learn social norms, to develop speech and language skills, to rehearse different situations they may encounter, to explore their own nature, and to have fun.

Whilst play is lead by the child themselves and is very much dependent on their creativity and imaginations, being open-ended and free from restrictions (except, perhaps, adult strictures to ‘play nicely’), games are more formal. They share a lot of the benefits of more open play, but they differ in that they have rules and pre-determined outcomes, usually with the goal of winning.

Games take many forms, they might be physical ones, with well developed rules such as football, often mediated by a referee, or less formal ones such as tag. They may require no equipment at all, and can be played anywhere, or they may come in a box and need a table and chairs, like Monopoly or Bridge. There are also those that need a screen, such as Tetris, or the internet, such as Fortnite, or Minecraft.

Whilst there are often overt educational benefits from playing games, they also offer the opportunity to learn less obvious lessons, too. Scrabble, for instance, or Boggle and Upwords, are  great for literacy development, asking children to find and create words. They can  also have an element of numeracy, in looking for the best place to put a word down, or simply  totting up the  score. Chess offers lessons in strategy and spatial awareness. And Cluedo is about logic and problem solving.

That’s also true of Guess Who? but here players also have to think about language. How do they name the attribute they are looking for? What is it that distinguishes one head from another?

Less obvious, but just as important, skills learnt can include;

  • Not giving up. Learning to lose, yet playing again.

  • Turn-taking, waiting for it to be their go and giving space to others to have theirs.

  • Coping with stress or anxiety, particularly when someone else is about to usurp your play.

  • Cooperation – try playing Charades on your own.

  • Problem solving, as when the Jenga tower is beginning to lean and its your go.

Games also help to increase the amount of time learners will spend on a task, and they can make repetitive exercises more palatable. When children and young people, and even adults, undertake drill and practice exercises to reinforce what is being learnt, adding an element of gaming to the process can help make it easier to engage with. Whether this is in the presentation, or by adding an element of competition, which could be against other players, against the clock, or in beating a personal best.

One issue that sometimes needs to be addressed, however, is to make sure that learners appreciate that they are learning. Too often a skill learnt for a game, or practiced in a game situation, is not transferred to other contexts because the knowledge and skills acquired are not made explicit. They are solely brought out and used for that situation, without the pupil realising they are applicable elsewhere. For instance, a child getting a high-score when using an online times tables activity whereby aliens are destroyed if calculations are performed correctly, may still struggle when presented with a page of sums in an exercise book and a pencil to answer them.

Despite the  wide variation in formats, content, and purposes of games, the one  thing they have in common is that we enjoy playing them. They can make learning fun. And, generally, we learn better when  we are enjoying ourselves.


By John Galloway

John specialises in the use of technology to improve educational opportunities for children and young people with special educational needs. Much of the week he works in Tower Hamlets, in London’s east end. He also freelances as a writer, consultant and trainer. @johngalloway