How tabletop games help your child to learn better

“Can learning ever be fun?” — this is one of the essay topics I use with my upper secondary students. Of course, they know never to say “no” (or else! *cracks knuckles*)

But, on a serious note, they know that learning can be fun. There are many ways to make the process enjoyable, not least of which is the use of games to teach concepts. In fact, in recent years, tabletop games have been undergoing a strong revival. Whether we’re talking about board games or role-playing games (RPGs), newcomers continue to join the community every day.

For the younger generation, this is excellent, because most games contain a ton of learning value. Let’s look at a few popular games as examples:

  • Scrabble teaches one to form words;
  • Taboo teaches one to make associations;
  • UNO teaches one to think ahead of time.

The list can go on, but you get the idea.

Below is a list of 9 different ways in which tabletop games can help your child to learn better. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it consolidates the most prominent ones that I’ve seen from my own students’ progress.

What are role-playing games (RPGs)?

Tabletop games are fun. Fun equals motivation.

There are thousands of tabletop games out there, be they board games or role-playing games. This means that there’s something for everyone. Finding a game that your child will like also means that they will want to improve at it. They’ll be self-motivated to learn from their mistakes.

In the hands of an experienced therapist or educator, this can be a powerful tool. By combining games and learning, we can effectively motivate students to complete tasks without much push. If you haven’t seen my review of Quill: A Letter-Writing RPG, go check it out now! It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about here.

Tabletop games expose kids to new knowledge

Source: Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images

Tabletop games are very thematic. Often, they emulate certain aspects of the real world, including geopolitics, history, math and science. Kids will be exposed to these topics simply by playing them. If they enjoy the game, they may even go on to find out more about the genre or sub-topic on their own.

In fact, with RPGs, we can adapt real-world scenarios to them. I once used Covert Ops (a spy/military RPG) to teach WW2 history to a Secondary 4 student. I took him through a series of scenarios that were modelled after actual battles that took place in WW2. He went from a grade of C5 to A2 for his N Levels.

Coincidence? Maybe, but he definitely remembered all the dates and names of the battles that had taken place during that session 😛

Tabletop games tap on one’s imagination

Again, tabletop games generally have flavourful themes. Games like Carcassonne have beautiful artwork that really evoke our imaginations when we play them. Don’t underestimate the power of visuals—they can help children to develop mental imagery, which in turn facilitates mental synthesis and the development of information (Antonietti and Colombo, 2011). In simple English, this means they can help students to develop and link ideas that are crucial to the writing of brilliant stories, among other things.

Tabletop games can develop one’s intellect

…it is best to have an adult present, to help the child internalise the skills learned from the games.

There are so many different types of tabletop games. You have word games, dice games, card games, deductive games, and many, many more, which can actually help to develop children’s intellectual abilities. In an article by Dr Gwen Dewar from Parenting Science (and other researchers like Scholtz, Reid, et al), she rounds up several studies that reflect a positive correlation between the playing of board games and intellectual development. A study by Siegler and Ramani (2009) also shows that preschoolers can develop numeracy skills through board games.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise: most tabletop games require players to think, strategise and manipulate, whether you’re playing co-operative games like Police Precinct, or word games like Codenames. Of course, as per Dr Dewar’s article, it is best to have an adult present, to help the child internalise the skills learned.

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Tabletop games require executive functioning skills

Executive functioning skills include one’s mental control, the ability to organise and retrieve information, and self-regulate behaviour (among other things). Coincidentally, these are also skills that one needs to have to be good at a game.

In fact, right from the beginning, you’ll need to activate your working memory to properly process the game’s rules.

Thus, wouldn’t you say tabletop games are heavily dependent on one’s executive functioning skills?

One of the games I use to promote such skills is Hanabi, a cooperative card game of information-passing. Through it, I’ve been able to train students in their working memory, as well as the ability to mentally organise information. In fact, I noticed some of my students developing a stronger working memory after several sessions of it. Interesting, eh?

Tabletop games promote critical and lateral thinking

executive functioning

Lateral thinking is the ability to see the bigger picture and think out of the box; critical thinking is the ability to objectively analyse something. They are especially important to older kids and teens, who will need them for higher-level assignments.

Role-playing games (RPGs) are an awesome way to promote these two skill sets. In RPGs, players are often given unfair odds. They’ll need to think out of the box and make hard moral choices from time to time. All of these require players to think critically and laterally.

It’s also these same skills that will be used when players students write English expository essays, or assess texts in Humanities subjects.

Tabletop games encourage face-to-face communication

If tabletop gaming can’t create an ideal social setting for kids, what else can?

Technology enables you and I to interact with each other, even if we’re not in the same room. Whether it’s through Skype, Discord, Facebook Messenger, or even over the phone, distance is no longer a major hindrance when it comes to interpersonal communication.

However, you probably also know as well as I do that there will never be a perfect substitute for in-person face-to-face (FTF) communication.

Why is this form of interaction so important? For one, it helps us empathise and synchronise with one another better, according to researchers from CalTech. Additionally, a study done at the Missouri University of Science & Technology found that face-to-face interactions could improve relations between members of virtual teams.

FTF communication is therefore a crucial part of a child’s development. It helps them to pick up social skills, enables them to empathise with others, and allows them to build long-lasting relationships.

So, how does tabletop gaming fit into the picture?

Put simply, it is the perfect excuse for kids to get together as real-life friends! It creates opportunities for our kids to play, laugh, and bond; it encourages sportsmanship and cooperation within an FTF setting. Through it, players will engage in meaningful interactions, building on their sense of empathy for one another.

If tabletop gaming can’t create an ideal social setting for kids, what else can?

Tabletop games teach boundaries

When playing a board game or RPG, players will need to follow the game’s rules. At the same time, they’re also expected to follow the unwritten rules of a game. This may include any kind of rule, from keeping quiet when it’s someone else’s turn, to controlling one’s temper upon losing a game.

This taps on one’s cognitive inhibition, a part of one’s executive functioning that’s responsible for the self-regulation of behaviour. It also governs an important aspect of a child’s development—that one needs to know what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. Knowing how to recognise and obey boundaries within a game helps children to do the same in the real world.

13th Age
Artwork from the 13th Age Core Book

Want to hear an interesting story related to this? Back in 2015, I had a class of five students. We used to play this heroic fantasy game called 13th Age. In this class, there was a very chatty student called J. He would talk non-stop, whether the class was doing work or playing games. It got to a point where I had to put a stop to it.

What I did next to curb this problem was nothing short of hilarious. Till today, J and the others still talk about it.

Here’s what I did: while playing 13th Age, I passed a rule saying that something disastrous would happen to J’s Great Flaming Sword of Doom if he wouldn’t stop going off-topic. Despite repeated warnings, he still couldn’t restrain himself from talking. His Great Flaming Sword of Doom ended up being swallowed by the Big Bad Boss Monster. It had everyone rolling on the floor in laughter, including J himself.

BUT that actually did the trick. From then on, J was always more cautious when it wasn’t his turn to speak. I didn’t have to embarrass him or scold him; he learned it all on his own through a tabletop game.

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Tabletop games reduce stress and anxiety

People play games to unwind and relax. With tabletop games, it’s no different. Board games and RPGs have the ability to create laughter, good cheer, and rapport around the table. It’s a hobby that caters to all ages and has few barriers to entry. And, unlike video games’, communities are rarely toxic, because most of the time you’re playing with friends and family.

Added to that, your child’s constantly learning something while socialising. It may or may not be relevant to his/her academics, but it makes one feel good to learn something new while in a non-pressuring environment.

Board games and RPGs have the ability to create laughter, good cheer, and rapport around the table.

Concluding thoughts

Learning doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, many of my students find it easier to learn when games are involved.

This is because games enhance the learning process. Games are fun, and this automatically motivates students to find out more about their genres and sub-topics. As such, kids become organically exposed to new pathways of thought and knowledge. They may also acquire new skills that will help them in their academics.

Speaking of skills, most tabletop games implicitly encourage students to master their rules and understand their subtexts. To do so requires students to think critically and laterally, as well as activate their executive functions like organisational skills and the working memory.

And of course, let’s not forget the social aspect of tabletop games, which is a big thing. So much of communication is ironically lost in today’s digital age, but tabletop gaming really puts the letters ‘u’ ‘n’ ‘i’ back in ‘communicate’ (yes I thought that was very witty too lol!). They teach kids to understand boundaries; they also help kids to bond, improve in their social awareness, and reduce stress and anxiety overall.

Tabletop games should be an integral part of our kids’ lives. Let them play, and they will learn.

how games help kids learn better infographic

Was anything missed out in this article? Do you have a strong recommendation that you’d like to add? Let us know in the Comments section below, and don’t forget to follow Swords & Stationery, the world’s first game-based specialist tuition programme, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for the latest learning tips, strategies and discussions.


Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.

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