by Carolyn Forte

As a new convert to homeschooling, with very headstrong 3- and 5-year-old daughters, I learned the value of using games to teach everything from health and safety to times tables. My children often resisted my attempts to teach them using formal lessons, but I could always get them eagerly involved in a game. As time passed, games became vital to combat the frustration my girls encountered in learning to read. Drills and workbooks quickly become tedious for children who are having difficulty. Games, however, when used properly, are fun and even exciting.

Games are not just for the late bloomers. Everyone, adults included, can learn a lot from games. There are commercial games available for every subject area, but you don’t have to spend your entire homeschool budget to use games in learning. Children enjoy making up games and even adults can learn to create games with a little help from the professionals. There are books of game ideas and even game creation kits. You can make your own games to learn specific facts or skills. I once made a simple board game to help my daughters learn Bible verses for Bible Quizzing. We constantly made up games in the car: “Who can find the most varieties of trees, flowers, etc.,” “Name birds (mammals, gems, etc.) in turn until one person can’t come up with another one,” “What would you do if you were lost in the forest ( or supermarket, etc)…?” and of course the old standby, “The alphabet game.”

For the creatively challenged there are, thankfully, many, many games on the market to help you get started. Often people don’t realize how educational the most ordinary looking games can be. Any game that uses two or more dice teaches basic addition facts. The card game “21” teaches mental addition up to at least 21. Any deck of cards that has objects (hearts, spades, etc.) on them will teach a preschooler counting, numbers and numerals. My mother played a card matching game called “casino” with me from the time I was three years old. It was a fun way to pass the time waiting in doctor’s offices (I was a very sickly child.) and I learned to be comfortable with numbers at an early age. Large print cards, which are easier for little eyes, are also available.

In our heavily visual twenty-first century, we tend to forget that we are whole human beings. We learn a great deal with our eyes, but we have other senses too, and often, in our eagerness to teach our children, we can forget that the whole body works together to learn. I once saw a documentary on television about a school team in training for a competition. The coach was relentless in his pursuit of excellence. He prescribed a specific regimen of diet, exercise and rest for the team to follow. What sort of team was this? It was the chess team! That coach knew that if the players’ bodies were not fit, their brains would not function at their peak either. Simple games like jump rope, jacks, marbles, catch, ring toss, etc. help hand-eye coordination, get the blood circulating, sharpen the senses and work off excess energy. Humans were not designed to sit at desks all day. We need to move or we become twitchy, irritable, lethargic or even ill. Homeschoolers, of course seldom try to make children as sedentary as schools do, but it is easy to forget that children need to move a great deal. The younger the child, the more movement is needed. Remember this when selecting games. If you have a spring-loaded little Tigger on your hands, don’t get a three-hour board game. If, however, you need to include a younger child in a longer game, build some movement into it for him. Have him do something physical between turns to help him stay the course.

There are several keys to success in using games to teach. The first and foremost is to be enthusiastic. People are always asking me, “Is this game fun?” Believe me, “fun” is relative. “Fun” for one person is “boring” for another. However, enthusiasm is usually the defining factor. If you are enthusiastic about a game, your children are more likely to enjoy it and learn from it. The reverse is also true. Don’t expect learning to occur if the game is forced. Don’t ever “assign” a game like you would assign a page of math exercises. That is a sure way to kill any learning that the game might have promoted. So, rule #1 is have fun! If it isn’t fun, go do something else. Rule #2 is play with your kids. Unless you have older children who enjoy playing games on their own, don’t expect children to play games without you. Try not to think of games as a substitute babysitter. Some games are fine for children to play on their own, but don’t count on it. Be prepared to play with your children. Rule #3 is relax! Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you’re teaching math facts or phonics with games, don’t expect miracles. You might get one occasionally, but patience is vital. Don’t worry, your child will eventually learn that 7+3 is 10. Just keep playing. When you are tired of one game, play another. Have some quick games that you can take with you anywhere (cards, “Chips”, auto bingo, guessing games) so that in those odd, annoying moments when you have to kill some time, you can fill the minutes of waiting with something productive. I’d like to add a suggestion to the “rules.” Find out your children’s favored learning style(s) as you incorporate games. Most people like some games, but a person’s learning styles can make a great deal of difference in the types of games he will enjoy. Discovering Your Child’s Learning Style by Mariaemma Pellulo-Willis and Victoria Hodson is a book designed to help you understand how your child learns most easily. That in turn can help in choosing the best games for your child. If you have more than one child, they will likely be different but, don’t despair, most games appeal to more than one personality type and learning style so you can all play together and enjoy many games. Always remember that you can alter the rules to suit your children’s learning style or academic needs. It always helps learning if the players talk through the plays explaining what their moves are and how it affects other players. That way you add an auditory and a verbal component.

Before you buy a game, think about your learning objectives. Some games are very specific to one subject area (Time to Divide teaches only multiplication and division facts). Other games teach a wide variety of things (The Garden Game from Ampersand Press teaches Botany, Gardening, Weather, Ecology). The more a game teaches, the longer its useful life is likely to be. However, some games that are limited in scope are also fun for all ages simply because they contain the elements of chance and skill. Set is an immensely popular game of perception that can be enjoyed by children as young as five or six as well as by adults. Its useful life is close to forever and you become more and more skilled at recognizing more complex sets the longer you continue to play it. It is infinitely challenging. So think about what you want out of the games you buy.

One of the greatest challenges in choosing games comes when you have at least one non-reader who will want to play. Some games are designed for non-readers (The Wild Seed Game by Ampersand Press teaches simple Botany, Weather and Gardening in a no reading format) and others can be modified (Take Off by Resource Games teaches Would Geography. Eliminate the cards and simply race around the world on the colored flight paths.). Some games can be played on more than one level for players of different ages. Take Off can be played with the cards for older players and without for the younger children at the same time. Ampersand Press has a game that teaches about electricity called AC/DC. It is recommended for age 9 and up but once you understand the rules, there is no reading required. The game will stimulate discussion of electric circuits and safety that much younger children can understand if they play with the family. Of course, you can greatly enhance the learning if you do some hands on activities with batteries, wire, a light bulb, etc. Remember, the more senses you use, the more likely you will remember what you learned. There are inexpensive kits produced by Usborne Books or Educational Insights, which contain everything you need.

Learning with games does not mean the elimination of books. Get books that will supplement your games. You can easily create unit studies out of games, especially the more comprehensive board games like The Garden Game, Take Off, The Farming Game, Spaceopoly or GeoDerby USA. Take vocabulary words from the game cards. Read books or do research on something suggested by the game. You can even do the math involved in certain aspects of the game. If you are not up to creating your own unit studies there is a teacher who has done it for you, at least in the science subjects. The Come With Me Science Units are available covering subjects from the human body to arctic mammals to the solar system. Everything you need is included: lesson plans, games, activities, pictures, facts, audiocassette with stories and songs.

Games and activities can greatly enhance your homeschool experience. They can give you a break from the ho-hum of a packaged curriculum or they can be your curriculum. Either way, they are a great way to learn. One reason they are so effective, is that there is less pressure to perform with a game. Children don’t usually feel threatened by an age appropriate game and a feeling of safety is the most important component in being ready to learn. Children often develop learning blocks in subject areas that have threatened them. Put the same things in a fun game format, and you will be amazed what happens. This is assuming that the child is developmentally ready for that concept. If you get resistance, even in a game, put that game on the shelf for a while longer. Your child may not be ready. Now go out and have some fun!

Carolyn Forte homeschooled her two daughters for 14 years. Carolyn and her husband, Martin, are the owners of Excellence In Education, a homeschool resource center in Monrovia, CA. Carolyn and her daughter, Tenaya, are the authors of The Game Curriculum, a guide to using games in the elementary grades. The Fortes can be reached through their web site at