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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