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
In addition, social scientists have argued that games teach
lessons about getting along with others (Kamii and DeVries 1980; Zan and
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
Then there are the possible intellectual benefits.
Many board game--including the classics, like chess, go, and various
--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.
Research 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
• 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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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,
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)
Content of "Board games for kids" last modified 11/12