When most educators think of educational games, their thoughts will likely leap to educational video games, however, low-tech and inexpensive games have been used with great success for years in the classroom and there is still a place to incorporate low-tech educational games in your classroom curriculum. 

https://www.howtolearn.com/products/amazing-gradesIn-fact, creating goal-oriented low-tech educational games is a great way to engage students and offer an exciting break from the daily textbook work. From simple counting and matching games to vocabulary and reading games, your imagination is the only limit to what games you can create with a little effort and a few bucks.

Quest to Learn schools in New York and Chicago are based entirely on game principles, but 90% of the games used in those classrooms are board-games or physical games, according to school officials. If classes do use video games, they almost always use existing commercial games like Minecraft or Portal paired with a specific query or learning goal directive designed by the teacher. The drawback of many video games is that they are single-player and isolated. The benefit can be a self-directed and personalized experience with a lot of data to help assess if a student is learning.

“Kids can sit for hours on end playing games because games drop players into spaces that force them to face complex problems,” said Eliza Spang, Institute of Play learning director in an edWeb presentation. “Then players get immediate and ongoing feedback about their choices.” Gaming can be especially useful in middle and high school grades when school traditionally moves away from play, she added.


There are seven components to game-play that aptly fit curriculum design.

  1. Challenge is constant
  2. Everything is interconnected
  3. Failure is reframed as iteration
  4. Learning happens by doing
  5. Feedback is immediate and ongoing
  6. Everyone is a participant
  7. It feels like play

“These characteristics are very hard to untangle,” Spang said. “You need to use them all together to make them feel the most powerful.” Like a game, students won’t understand a new unit of study all at once. It should be designed around a difficult concept that students reach by doing exercises and projects – leveling up – to the point when they understand how to “win” the game or unit.

Thinking of the seven components of game-play as integral parts of classroom pedagogy allows the teacher to learn more from gaming than any one design offers, she said.


Games can also be great tools for both gauging existing knowledge and for formative assessment. As students are playing a game, a teacher can walk around and listen to the conversations students are having with one another. Through observation, teachers can tell if students understand the material or if they’re struggling. The group environment allows students to work on teamwork, problem solving and leadership, and game-play can also facilitate peer-to-peer instruction as students help each other learn the game and the concepts.

One way to assess learning at the end of a unit is to ask students to make a strategy guide written to help a classmate win the game. By documenting the choices they made in the game they’re showing their knowledge. Another way to assess them could be to have students design their own game. And if students don’t know how to play or win the game at first, one of the curriculum goals is to see failure as iteration and to improve.

“Generally when you play you won’t get it right the first time,” said Brendan Trombley, a game designer at Institute of Play. “You’ll have to change your strategy or technique to overcome that challenge.”


At Quest to Learn schools teachers have a robust team of game and curriculum designers to work with as they develop new games for their classrooms. Most schools won’t have those kinds of resources, but games can still be a part of the classrooms, the speakers said. One easy way to get started designing games is to modify an existing game by breaking it down into its parts and tweaking one aspect to target a learning outcome.

Continue reading How Schools Design Classroom Games for Learning

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