Using Classic Games as Instructional Aids in the Classroom: Case Studies and Implications

Using Classic Games as Instructional Aids in the Classroom: Case Studies and Implications

Have you ever played UNO, Scrabble, Hearts, or Dominoes? Chances are that you have. Classic card and board games are widely popular. According to Mattel, 30,000 games of Scrabble are started each hour. According to Hasbro, more than 275 million games of Monopoly have been sold worldwide. With online, mobile, and handheld versions of classic games available, it is difficult to quantify how popular they are, but also easy to see how ubiquitous they remain.

Considering the popularity of classic games, we should also look at their educational value. Although we may not be looking for an instructive experience when we pick up a deck of playing cards or take out a gameboard and play a game, what if they helped us to understand educational concepts? What if, for example, Yahtzee helps us conceptualize probability? Does Clue help us with deductive logic? Does Scrabble help with orthography?

The research that is available is promising. For example, Alfred Schademan, a professor at California State University, used an ethnographic approach to study the considerations that African American males make while playing Spades.

His research took place in a school cafeteria in a large, urban, under-resourced school. The players engaged in games of Spades on a daily basis and were studied several times over the course of a school year. He found that players make observations, draw inferences, and use empirical data to inform their actions within the game.

Specifically, the players used complex strategies to maximize their gains and minimize their losses. In order to execute these strategies, they needed to observe other players’ moves, infer from these moves what they were likely to have in their hands, think about potential rounds as well as current rounds, and occasionally make plays intended to confuse opponents. These abilities, according to Schademan, separate expert Spade players from novices.

Schademan notes that these abilities are also highly valued in science. Using evidence and making inferences are the inquiry skills that lead to the advancement of scientific knowledge. He argues that Spades provides African American males with the types of inquiry skills that are necessary for science learning. Schademan suggests that his study supports inquiry-based science teaching as a way to empower youth in the classroom through tapping into the strategies that they learn through games such as Spades.

I wonder if his study can be taken a step further to suggest that Spades can be used as a way to introduce inquiry learning to students by highlighting the skills that they are already using in their playing style and relating that to science.  This could be done in a variety of ways. For example, teachers could use Spades as an analogical framework to introduce the steps to scientific inquiry. Students could learn the game if they did not already know it, then use their experiences to inform their understanding of the scientific method as the teacher draws analogies between gameplay and inquiry.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir also studies games and learning by highlighting the cognitive and mathematical skills that players use in dominoes.

Nasir examines the game-play across the developmental span, from elementary school students to adults. Participants were studied at their schools and in the lunch area of their workplace for the adults.

Nasir’s research shows some interesting findings. In general, players demonstrate increasingly complex strategies with age. For example, Nasir notes that, when elementary school students play dominoes in teams, they are comfortable asking for help when they need it and thus scaffold their own learning. Elementary school students also learn their multiples of 5 better by counting the score throughout the game. High school students conjure and compare imagined plays to make the most optimal move. They use deductive reasoning to figure out which bones have not yet been played and thus which dominoes they should play to maximize their points and minimize their opponent’s points. Adults blocked each other’s moves and paid attention to dominoes that their opponents might have that could score.

In sum, while there is not yet extensive research on the skills that classic games can reinforce, the studies that have been conducted are promising. Many games can be analyzed for the skills that Schademan and Nasir have identified in spades and dominoes, respectively, as well as for other skills that will help students with their learning.

For future research, I think that 2 aspects of classic games can give them a particular advantage over traditional forms of instruction in the classroom. The first is that games are fun. For most students, I would assume that students would rather play a game than hear a lecture or fill out a worksheet. Keeping students engaged in the instructional activity at hand may be easier with games, particularly classic games with which students are already familiar. Second, games allow ample practice. Games can give students more opportunities to hone their skills within a class period. Thus, they may be more efficient tools for reinforcing concepts than worksheets or other homework assignments.

If classic games are shown to foster skills important to learning in the classroom, should these skills be made implicit or explicit to students? For example, if Spades were to be used as an analogical framework for understanding scientific inquiry, would the explicit educational connections made by the teacher ruin the fun of the game for the students, or would the approach make the lesson more relevant and engaging? I think that games are a great medium to tap into students’ prior experiences and to allow students to connect what they know already to what they will learn.

What do you think? Do classic games have a place in the classroom? If so, how should games be used in the classroom setting? What games do you think would help students learn new concepts or reinforce those already learned? Are there concerns or drawbacks with using games as instructional devices?



Burkeman, O. (2008). Spell bound. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Hasbro (2012). Monopoly – 75 years young. Hasbro. Retrieved from

Nasir, N. S. (2005). Individual cognitive structuring and the sociocultural context: Strategy shifts in the game of dominoes. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(1), 5-34. Retrieved from

Schademan, A. R. (2011). What does playing cards have to do with science? A resource-rich view of African-American young men. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 6, 361-380. doi: 10.1007s11422-010-9275-5



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  • Jackie
    Posted at 17:32h, 04 March

    I think that these games are a great way to incorporate into the classroom because I really didn’t think that games could be used in this way that they make people think outside the box. Classic games are a great way for students to think analytically instead of just spitting out the answers onto worksheets. I like the idea that Yahtzee could be used to teach probability. I think this is a great way to review a topic or to even just practice probability. I think that classic games should be incorporated into the classroom at the appropriate time. Monopoly would be another game that could implement and reenforce probability.

  • cote
    Posted at 17:43h, 04 March

    Great to hear! Exactly; there is so much educational potential in games that people already play.

    After writing this post, I researched the topic further and found that someone has written a book about how games can be used in this way. The book is titled “A Board Game Education” and is written by Jeffrey Hinebaugh. I have not read it, but if you want to read about more ways in which games can be used for educational purposes, I would take a look at that book.

    I like how you mentioned that classic games have their time and place in the classroom. Further research questions, then, seem to go in the direction of: are games ever *more* effective than traditional classroom activities? Also, do you think the games you mentioned would be less fun if someone had labeled them with skills you can learn?

  • Alessandra
    Posted at 12:59h, 05 March

    Society has changed so rapidly (technologically speaking) in the past decade alone, it is, in my opinion, absurd that administrations, schools, and teachers are implementing teaching stiles and theories from the “one room schoolhouse.” Outside of school students are being satisfied mentally and entertained by the media and technology that does not always promote the healthiest messages. Teachers have the opportunity to target their audience, find out what they like and what engages them, and potentially gear games towards the curriculum. Chances are when students are done with the school day, they go home, watch tv, play video games, etc, and the thought of doing senseless drill exercises and reading does not appeal to them at all, but that is not necessarily their fault. This is the society they have grown up in, and the teaching styles implemented today are not conducive to their growth. Outside of the school walls the world is moving so quickly. It is a shame that education is moving so slowly towards a more realistic approach, an approach that makes sense for the world we live in. It will take a lot of work on the part of the teacher, however I feel they are more likely to get the results they desire, engaged students, enthusiastic class participation, retention of the material, and ability to inquire- to keep asking educational and higher thinking questions. I do believe that it, unfortunately, needs to be implemented at a somewhat slow pace, as teachers who decide to employ games in their classroom may be met with a lot of resistance from administration and other teachers. Then again, I also do believe that games cannot be used too much in the classroom, because perhaps students might eventually misunderstand the educational purpose. I think your blog post is concise and informative, portraying a message that many people are thinking, but are not necessarily putting out there for the world to see.

  • cote
    Posted at 16:32h, 08 March

    I agree that teaching methods do not necessarily match with the technology-saturated world we live in. Having said that, school districts are making great strides towards implementing technology-based programs at the classroom level and at the institutional level. Games can and should be part of that shift.

    I think that there are also merits to using analog (not digital) games in the classroom. Specifically, analog games that enjoy wide availability and popularity may be a way to connect with students and to engage them in the instructional activity.

    You bring up a great point when you mention that modifying curricula takes work on part of the teacher. I wonder if teachers would meet resistance from other teachers and administrators; that probably depends on the people involved as well as the explicit connections between the game and the particular instructional objective. That brings up another question, though: does labeling a game as educational ruin the motivation and effectiveness that it would bring to students? While an “educational game” may be easier to implement logistically, it may be less engaging for students and thus partially defeating the purpose of incorporating games into the classroom in the first place.

    You raise an interesting point in suggesting that students may “misunderstand the educational purpose” by learning from games. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that; are you saying that games send the wrong message about academic rigor? I think that games can actually enhance students’ understanding of the purpose of education because they may allow students to more easily transfer what they learn in school to real-world situations. That is an interesting debate, indeed.

    Thanks for the insightful comments so far!