Why Playing Games isn’t just Playing Around

Many teachers and resources encourage playing games in the classroom. At first glance, playing a game might seem like a waste of time, a filler lesson when you’ve got a gap between teaching modules, or a reward for your students based on their performance or behavior. In any case, it’s hardly productive, right? Students don’t actually learn anything or develop any skills, right? In truth, games are often a way for anyone to learn and grow.


It Starts At Childhood

Most childhood psychologists and developmental specialists agree that playing is an important activity for toddlers and adolescents (and even infants to a degree).  Sure, playing is fun, but it also establishes situations or environments that foster growth in a number of ways.  Games can be ways for young children to develop motor skills, learn about the basic laws of nature, and discover links between cause and effect.  ‘Playing house’ or having tea time and other role-playing scenarios – or even playing with dolls and action figures – are centered around scenarios that the children might be exposed to as adults; they’ll learn scripts that adults use routinely, understand different roles and the relationship between different roles (like doctor and patient), and practice various levels of communication and social interaction.  And of course, many games create opportunities for problem-solving in any number of ways.

Play is not only beneficial for children, it’s essential for their development.  So why stop when we get older?


The Advantages of Play

There is certainly a need for structure and traditional teaching methods, but the learning experience shouldn’t be limited to that.  Just like only playing games isn’t the best way to learn, never playing games isn’t a great way to learn, either.  Playing games has its advantages:

  • When students are having a good time, they’re more likely to engage in the activity, or engage more deeply.
  • When students enjoy what they’ve been doing, they’re more likely to remember it.
  • Many games offer more levels of interaction than just a student speaking to a teacher; students get to riff off each other more.
  • Some games are based on role-playing; students get to practice interactions that approximate real-life scenarios.
  • Many games take the form of free practice or production, meaning students rely less on speaking sentences that were outlined for them or responding to narrow prompts.  Instead, the language they produce is more likely to either be more natural or come from the learner’s imagination.
  • Outside of the game, players might respond to what’s happening in the game, whether that’s through interjections, words of encouragement, playful taunts and jests, etc.  It’s a good time for students to put casual speech (perhaps including slang) to use, an opportunity that rarely if ever comes up in structured practice, even though it’s practical for students to know and use such expressions.


Language Development Games

Virtually any game can be used to practice English as long as you require your students to only speak English as they play.  That doesn’t mean every game is optimized for language learning, but at the very least, you can create an environment where students practice writing or speaking English without many of the restrictions that come with doing exercises.

If you’re looking for something that’s more likely to grow your students’ skills, try to find games that require communication on a level that’s neither too easy nor too difficult for your students.  You don’t want your students to feel like they’re struggling to remember the rules or to format a sentence; you want them practice something they’re already capable of with the goal of making it more natural.

  • Choose a game that uses grammar points that students have learned recently, but not that requires more advanced productions that students aren’t comfortable with yet.
  • Choose a game that uses grammar points that students learned a few months ago.  Games can be a good way to review, to keep skills and knowledge sets fresh before they are forgotten.


There are plenty of resources out there with games for English language learners.  But you can also select a commercially-available game that wasn’t made for language-learners in mind.  In the case of the latter, you’ll probably have to put more thought into what’s required for the players and how that matches up with your students’ proficiency level.

You can search the web for options, or check out some of our other articles:

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