Board games for kids:

Can they teach critical thinking?

© 2009-2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The benefits of board games for kids? Some are obvious. Kids enjoy playing them, and board games are opportunities for families to play together.

In addition, social scientists have argued that games teach lessons about getting along with others (Kamii and DeVries 1980; Zan and Hildebrandt 2005).

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For example, games may encourage kids to

• consider the concept of rules

• practice following rules

• reason about moral problems

When kids play with older role models they can learn something else, too: How to win—and lose—with grace and good manners (Gobet et al 2004).

Then there are the possible intellectual benefits.

Many board game--including the classics, like chess, go, and various mancala games --encourage players to

• detect patterns

• plan ahead

• predict the outcome of alternative moves

• learn from experience

But are gaming skills relevant in the real world? It depends.

Studies about board games for kids

Some board games reward logical reasoning.

For example, the game of Clue (see below) can be used as a tool to teach deductive logic (Neller et al 2006).

And the game Mastermind has been used to test the aptitude of college students for computer programming (Lorenzen and Chang 2006).

However, we can’t assume that playing board games will make kids better students.

Studies suggest that good chess players are better at recognizing and remembering certain configurations of chess pieces. But chess experts aren’t necessarily any better at recognizing patterns in other contexts (Gobet and Campitelli 2006). And while chess players tend to be more intelligent than non-chess players, the correlation may reflect self-selection: Smarter people may be more likely to play chess (Gobet and Campitelli 2006).

What we need are rigorous experiments. We need kids to be randomly assigned to treatment or control groups. We need students and teachers to be kept ignorant of the purpose of the experiment. And we need to test students before and after the intervention.

As noted by Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli, very few studies of chess meet these standards. And the situation for board games in general isn't much better. But here are some exceptions:

Chess. In one study of kids with learning disabilities, researchers assigned students to receive either 5 hours of math instruction each week OR 4 hours of math and 1 hour of chess instruction each week. The kids were tested at the beginning of the school year and again at the end. The students who’d received chess lessons showed more improvement in basic math skills like counting and addition (Scholtz et al 2008).

Number-line board games for kids. In two independent experiments, some preschoolers were assigned to play “number line” board games—-i.e., games in which players move game pieces through a series of sequentially-numbered spaces. Before and after the intervention, the kids were given several math tasks. Whereas kids in control groups experienced no improvement, the kids who had played numerical board games had developed superior math skills.

Mastermind. Studies using the game Mastermind, have yielded mixed results. When college students were assigned to play the game, they experienced improvements in their critical thinking skills, making fewer errors of reasoning (Wood and Stewart 1987). But a study of 7th and 8th graders failed to find any similar effects (Bright et al 1983).


So it seems that -- at least sometimes -- board game skills have translated into academic skills.

Why aren’t the effects more obvious and consistent?

It could be that there are no effects -- that the reported links between board game practice and real-life skills reflect statistical flukes.

But given that a successful game player must learn to control her impulses, follow the rules, and reflect, it makes sense that gaming experience might translate into better performance on academic tasks that require focus and self-control.

It also makes sense that games designed to give kids practice in specific subject areas -- like number sense -- would foster transferable skills.

Perhaps, then, the problem is that merely playing a game isn't enough. Intellectual breakthroughs are required.

For instance, some kids need to realize that they can improve their performance with practice.

When people think of problem-solving ability as a talent or a gift, they take fewer chances and don't learn as well from their own mistakes.

By adopting a different view--i.e., that problem solving is something we learn--kids may better develop their analytical abilities.

Maybe, too, kids need coaching about metacognition. They need to become conscious of their own tactics and consider about why they work (or fail to work).

Many players may fail to make these breakthroughs on their own. Perhaps, then, kids will reap the most cognitive benefits when board games are part of general program for teaching math, logic, and critical thinking skills.

Board games + metacognition = better critical thinking?

By all means, let kids play board games because they are fun. But--at least once in a while--adults can give kids something to think about, too.

Research strongly suggests that kids become better learners when they believe that intelligence is malleable.

And studies show that kids learn more when they attempt to explain their reasoning processes.

So we might make board games a more powerful learning tool if we teach kids that problem-solving ability is like a muscle: It can be strengthened with practice and learning.

And kids might make more improvements if we encourage them to explain their tactics or the tactics they see others use.

Kids don't explain themselves unless they are prodded

When researcher David Reid watched 2nd graders play Mastermind and Connect Four in the classroom, he noticed that kids never asked each other to explain their reasoning--even when they were teammates making suggestions to each other.

The teacher played a crucial role. She was the only person asking players to explain their choices(Reid 2002).

Kids benefit from lessons in critical thinking

As kids get older, we might also use board games as part of program of teaching critical thinking skills.

Why?

We know that middle school students can make substantial improvements in problem-solving ability--even general IQ--when they are taught general principles of critical thinking (Hernnstein et al 1986).

If board games are used in conjunction with lessons on hypothesis testing, basic logic, and other topics, they may offer kids important ways to practice their general reasoning skills.

Board games for kids: Which ones to play?

So it seems to me that board games really are worth playing. Which ones? I’ve already mentioned several good bets: Chess, mancala, Mastermind, and Clue (also called “Cluedo”).

All of these games are pure strategy. No luck involved--not if you play them right.

For instance, Clue is a game of deductive logic.

Close-up on Clue

The game begins with three cards being hidden from view. The rest of the card deck is distributed amongst the players, who keep their cards to themselves. Each of the cards depict a unique weapon, room, or character. The object of the game is to deduce the identity of the three hidden cards by

(1) eliminating the cards in your own hand, and

(2) eliminating the cards in your competitors’ hands

And the challenge is that you don’t have full access to your competitors’ hands. Players then take turns making preliminary suggestions about the identity of the hidden cards, e.g., “I suggest that Miss Scarlet was murdered in the kitchen by the candlestick.

At each suggestion, all the players must see if they can disprove the suggestion because they hold one of the cards in question. If they do, they show the card(s) to the person who made the suggestion.

The showing is kept private (i.e., only the person who made the suggestion is allowed to see the card). But everyone benefits from the knowledge that at least one of the suggested cards can be eliminated. By taking good notes and making valid inferences, players can eventually deduce the correct identity of the hidden cards. That’s why Clue has been used to teach propositional logic and computer programming to college students (Neller et al 2006).

Other board games for kids with educational applications

Monopoly has been used to teach college students financial principles (Shaklin and Ehlen 2007). Scrabble has been used to reinforce verbal skills. And research suggests that games like Chutes and Ladders may help kids develop a strong sense of the number line.

I also like the Sum Swamp Addition and Subtraction Game, which requires kids to practice basic arithmetic.

More research-based information about board games for kids

For details about the effects of math games on preschoolers, see my article about mathematical board games for kids.

In addition, you might want to check out these research-inspired math games and activities for preschoolers.


References: Research about board games for kids

Bright GW. 1983. Use of a Game to Instruct on Logical Reasoning. School Science and Mathematics 83(5): 396-405.

Gobet F and Campetelli G. 2006. Educational benefits of chess instruction: A critical review. In T Redman (Ed): Chess and education: Selected essays from the Koltanowski conference (pp. 124-143). Dallas, TX: Chess Program at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Gobet F, de Voogt A and Retschitzki J. 2004. Moves in mind: The psychology of board games. Psychology Press.

Franklin S, Peat M and Lewis A. 2003. Non-traditional interventions to stimulate discussion: the use of games and puzzles. Journal of Biological Education 3(2): 79-84.

Herrnstein RJ, Nickerson RS, Sanchez M and Swets JA. 1986. Teaching thinking skills. American Psychologist 41: 1279-1289.

Kamii C and DeVries R. 1980. Group games in early education: Implications of Piaget's theory. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Lorenzen T and Chang HL. 2006. MasterMind©: a predictor of computer programming aptitude ACM SIGCSE Bulletin 38(2): 69 - 71.

Neller T, Markov Z, and Russell I. 2006. Clue Deduction: Professor Plum Teaches Logic, Proceedings of the 19th International FLAIRS Conference (FLAIRS-2006), Melbourne Beach, Florida, May 11-13, 2006, pp. 214-219.

Reid D. 2002. Describing reasoning in early elementary school mathematics. Teaching Children Mathematics. December 2002: 234-237.

Shanklin and Ehlen. 2007. Using the Monopoly board game as an in-class economic simulation in the introductory financial accounting course. Journal of college teaching and learning 4(11): 65-71.

Smith J and Cage B. 2000. The effects of chess instruction on the mathematics achievement of Southern, rural, Black secondary students. Research in the Schools 7: 19-26.

Wood LE and Stewart PW. 1987. Improvement of practical reasoning skills with a computer game. Journal of computer-based instruction14(2) 49-53.

Content of "Board games for kids" last modified 11/12