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Want to Up Your Teaching Game? Let the Students Play

Using board games in your lessons boosts creativity, teaches cooperation, and supports curriculum.
Two middle school students play a board game with cubes in the classroom
Published: July 18, 2023

Alyssa Tong is a gamer. A board gamer, that is. She plays board games with her friends on Friday nights and regularly reads reviews of new games to try out.

“I love all of them!” she says.

Tong shares her enthusiasm for board games with her students at Crispell Middle School, in Pine Bush, N.Y., where she teaches English as a new language.

“Board games are great ways to build vocabulary for English language learners [ELLs] and they also offer opportunities to build SEL skills,” she says.

four teachers play a board game in the school library
Alyssa Tong, far right, plays Votes for Women, which is part of her eighth-grade curriculum. To meet the game’s creator, visit Credit: Courtesy of Alyssa Tong

Tong is a member of the Tabletop Alliance, a volunteer-run nonprofit with a mission to promote and advance education and communities through the incorporation of games into programs and institutions like libraries and schools. Through the organization, she and her school have received free board games, like Just One, a word association game, and NMBR 9, a puzzle game that builds math skills. 

In Tong’s classroom, students play Just One together to guess as many mystery words as possible.

“The mystery word might be ‘cupcake,’ and kids might say small, sweet, dessert, while the others put those words together,” she says. “Using adjectives and word association for ELLs in a game allows them to learn new words in a fun way.”

Just One can support learning about science, too.

“Our students learn about cells in seventh grade, and they can play the game and come up with adjectives that describe parts of a cell,” Tong explains.

Playing NMBR 9, she adds, helps students hone multiplication skills and spatial awareness, with some friendly competition to egg them on.

“The sky is the limit in how you can use games to support curriculum,” Tong says.

Games can match teachers’ needs

A group of students and their teacher play a board game on a rug in the classroom

Bruce Brown is the founder of the Tabletop Alliance. He’s also the assistant director for leadership education at Texas A&M University and host of the “Board Game Impact” podcast.

He and his team at Tabletop select games that have the best results for students and also match teachers’ needs.

Research shows that games can be used to enhance a variety of learning outcomes, Brown says, such as teaching explicit lessons, fostering team building, increasing creativity, building confidence, and fostering resilience and good sportsmanship.

“Some teachers might want games to demonstrate economic principles or historical lessons, others to align with social emotional learning,” Brown says. “We call each educator we send games to [and] find what will best align with the desired outcomes.”

All of the recommended games can be set up, played, and taken down within an hour. They are easy to learn, appeal to a range of interests, and can be played repeatedly with more discovery each time. Many have helpful YouTube tutorials, too.

Brown says board games can help meet SEL needs by addressing social and self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

“The research shows that this is especially true when educators use intentional dialogue and reflection on actions to reinforce the learning for future applications,” he says.

Do not pass go without setting expectations

Before the students grab game pieces and dive in, Tong recommends establishing some classroom norms.

“Define expectations for set up and clean up, behavior, and sportsmanship,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s easy for students to get excited and forget all of those things, and then it’s the teacher who is cleaning up and setting up.”

It’s hard for students, especially those who are younger or neuro-divergent, to find the language to express their emotions in a constructive way, Tong says.

“But when a student who is easily frustrated is able to lose, but still say good game and not have a meltdown, everyone wins.”

Move Over Monopoly

Today’s board games are deep dives into unique themes and user experiences. Bruce Brown, founder of the Tabletop Alliance, recommends some of his favorites for classrooms.
Wingspan game box cover features a photo of a flycatcher

Wingspan by Stonemaier Games

Players become researchers, bird watchers, ornithologists, and collectors, all seeking to discover and attract the best birds to their network of wildlife preserves. Each card includes detailed information about a specific bird, such as wingspan, nest type, region of the world, and even a fun fact.
photo of the box lid of Food Chain Magnate game features 1950s style art of a diner and waitress

Food Chain Magnate by Splotter

In this strategy game, players build a fast-food chain by aligning suppliers, marketing, and selling to customers. Players also design an organizational chart during each round, from CEO to frontline employees.
box lid of canvas game features an oil painting of a girl with a canvas and brush against an orange and gold sky

Canvas by R2i

You have to be “in the know” to play this game. The name does not appear on the cover of the box—which doubles as art, complete with a notch on the back for hanging on the wall. This innovative game embraces the principles of art, with each player pretending to be a painter in an art competition. The goal is to collect art cards and artistically layer paintings to create a “masterpiece” and win best in show.

Tong's Tabletop Alliance Game Collection

Sushi Go Party game cover
Sushi Go Party by Gamewright
image of Onitama Game in its packaging
Onitama by Z-Man Games
King of Tokyo game
King of Tokyo by IELLO
NMBR 9 game box
NMBR9 by Z-Man Games
Just One game box
Just One by Repos Production

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