“Play is our brain’s favourite way of learning.”
I have always enjoyed playing games, all kinds of games. As a child, I didn’t really care about much else – I wanted to play all the time. Whether it was outdoors, at home, at school, playing games was an important part of my childhood. Growing up – and especially when I started working with children – I realised that, as adults, we tend to forget the major impact games have on a child. We mainly focus on the fun factor, but is that all there is to games? The answer here would be, no. Games can be fun, but they can also be insightful; they can feed a child’s curiosity; they can be educational; they can prompt communication and cooperation; they can result in positive emotions; and they can nurture overall development, so it makes sense that teachers use games in class.
Why play games in the young learners classroom?
On many occasions, I have encountered teachers who were pro games and others who were very much against them. “They’re more of a hassle than anything else.”, “Very difficult to manage and students lose focus of what we are doing,”, “Students misunderstand the use of games in the classroom.” are a few of the things I’ve heard over the years. While these are all valid concerns, nonetheless the benefits of integrating games in the young learners classroom overweigh the challenges one may come across.
Playing games is essential in foreign language learning and development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children (Ginsburg, 2007). It has the paradoxical effect of increasing a child’s attention span and improving the efficiency of thinking and problem-solving (Goldstein, 2012), an essential skill when learning a foreign language. Games also increase brain development and growth and have the power to establish new neural connections (Manichander, 2016). When they are playing games, young learners have the opportunity to put the language they are learning into context and develop the ability to understand new concepts or ideas, consider different perspectives and, most importantly, experiment!
Bearing in mind all the advantages, it is vital that the games we use in the classroom are age-appropriate, relatable, and well planned so that they can be effective and meaningful. Here are some tips on how to implement games in your young learners class and overcome possible challenges you may encounter along the way.
1. Introducing Games
When you are introducing games to your young learners, it’s always a good idea to turn up the enthusiasm. Start with a big smile, clapping and loads of positive reinforcement. This will get the ball rolling, intrigue your students and get them happily involved.
2. Games with a purpose
When planning to play a game in the language classroom there should always be a reason behind it in order for the game to be meaningful and effective. Think, are you reviewing vocabulary or a grammatical phenomenon they recently learned? Are you practising literacy skills? Are you working on cooperation skills? When you have a clear plan and purpose for playing the game you choose, it is easier to focus on the ‘teachable moments’ in the game and guide your students towards the right direction.
3. The right setting
Creating the appropriate set-up to play a game is vital as the wrong setting can ruin the flow. For example, to play a game of ‘Simon Says’, a kinesthetic game, students need to have enough space to act out the game. In this case, desks need to be moved and students should have enough room to stand in the middle of the classroom facing the teacher or an elected student to play the game. Students can be involved in the preparation and putting everything back in their place after they have finished playing, just as long as the tasks they are assigned are safe. This will not only give your young learners the sense of involvement, but will also offer them the sense of ownership of their classroom and the responsibilities they have.
4. Classroom management
It is important to establish classroom rules effectively to bring out the benefits of the game you wish to play with your young learners . This, depending on the age group, can be done through different activities and the students can be involved in the process.
One idea that works well with early, primary and secondary language learners is the Behaviour Contract, or in this case the Games Behaviour Contract. You and your students can put together a contract where students can have their say in what they think should be included in the contract. From personal experience, students always come up with ideas that helped them behave appropriately while playing a game in class. Rules like, “Be nice”, “Be careful”, “Don’t cheat” and “The teacher should bring cake for the winning team” were among the most popular in my classes. When the contract is complete, all students and the teacher sign it and hang it on a classroom wall where it is visible to everyone. If needed, the teacher (or the students!) can direct attention to the contract and remind everyone of what was agreed.
Another idea that slightly older primary learners would enjoy is to divide the class into pairs and ask young learners to work on blank index cards. They would be expected to come up with game classroom management rules and prepare them in the form of a news bulletin. The students can be given 15 to20 minutes to practise delivering their rules to the rest of the class by sitting behind a desk facing their peers. The pair would take turns playing the role of the news anchor. Their news could include phrases like, “Today the students of the intermediate class decided that when they play a game…” or you can even pre-teach phrases such as “This just in…”, and “Coming to you live with the latest news from…”. When all pairs have delivered their news bulletin the index cards can go up on the classroom wall and be referred to whenever necessary.
Taking games to the next level
Because of the fact that games are an excellent way to prompt young learners to actively focus their attention and immerse them in English language learning, it is wise to take these fun activities to the next level and use games to assess students as well. Assessing young learners through games helps reduce anxiety, it is less intimidating, it encourages spontaneous use of the foreign language, and fosters participatory attitudes, all of which can help students perform better while also helping them reach higher levels of language development through more child-friendly means (Giannikas & McLaughlin, 2016). The following tips can help you use games for assessment purposes…
How to assess young learners through games
Games can be used for a number of objectives, with assessment being an important one. When assessing through games, you can do so much more than just grade your students. You can provide your young learners with all the benefits mentioned, plus change their attitude towards assessment and boost their self-confidence as they are prompted to be assessed through less intimidating means, and gradually improve their performance.
It is vital that before you begin the assessment process you should decide on what it is you want to assess, the game you will use and how you will record your students’ progress. The next step is to decide on how you will collect the data you need and provide your young learners with feedback. One of the advantages of using games in the young learners’ classroom is that children do not feel they are put on the spot, especially if the teacher chooses to monitor and observe them while they are playing a game. The students are left to play the game and produce the language the teacher aims to assess. The teacher is not in the centre of the communication network but instead in the background, collecting the data they need to give feedback to the students when the game is over. Data can be recorded in a class journal, on a progress sheet or a checklist, depending on the game. Another choice would be to use audio or video recordings to use as assessment recording tools. After the game is over, the students can view or listen to the recordings and correct themselves and/or provide their peers with feedback. This can be done in groups and can work as a follow-up activity. Of course, it is essential that you gain consent from the children’s guardian before recording. Finally, another good option, especially if you need to be involved in the game, is peer observation, where you can ask a colleague to observe your class while you are playing a game with your young learners. You can provide them with the necessary observation sheets or checklist to guide them on what they should be looking out for.
All the aforementioned approaches offer the learner the space to use the language creatively and encourage young learners to see assessment differently.
Games are a natural way of exposing young learners to real learning opportunities. Through fun games, you can encourage your learners to see the beauty of learning another language in a way they can understand, appreciate and embrace.
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Have you tried using games with your young learners? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below…
Games in the Spotlight: teaching English to the YL. In IH Journal, Issue 40. C N Giannikas and L McLaughlin, 2016.
The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. In Pediatrics, 119:1. K R Ginsburg, 2007.
Play in Children’s Development, Health and Well-being. In Brussels: Toy Industry of Europe (TIE). J Goldstein, 2012.
Teacher Education. Laxmi Book Publication. T Manichander, 2016.