George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

How to Use Games to Build Community in Distance Learning

Games not only provide fun distractions from the stressors of the pandemic but also can be useful tools for online learning.

August 6, 2020
Girl on video call with friends from school, due to Coronavirus lockdown
Drazen_ / iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic forced students and teachers to change their routines drastically and quickly as they shifted to online learning. They could no longer sit in a circle and read a book, jump up to the front of the classroom to recite a poem, or work with a partner to share a dialogue in a language class.

During this extraordinarily complex time, it is important to offer students not only a solid academic experience, but also a place for connection and community, familiarity and consistency, discovery and expression—all virtually. Weaving games into lesson plans can improve engagement, inspire creativity, and develop content knowledge during a challenging time. Perhaps most important, games bring students together during the time of physical separation.

Design for Joy and Movement

Even with mundane tasks such as attendance taking, games can offer delight. One of the teachers at our school realized that she could make daily attendance a quick game by asking a fun question. Using Google Forms to collect responses and attendance, she asked students, “Would you rather be a mammal or a bird?” and “Why?”

Young students replied, “Because birds can travel wherever and fly in the clouds and on land water everything,” “Mammals tend to live longer,” and clever answers like “I’m a mammal already, and it’s going well.” At the beginning of class, students shared some of their answers, learned from one another, and laughed together.

Games that require movement provide opportunities for students to move away from their screens, even while in class. In our Early Childhood program, during synchronous programming, students were asked to find objects in their house, based on color, purpose, texture, and size, and bring them back to the group. These live scavenger hunts had children giggling and connected home to school, offering an opportunity for kids to share personal items and accompanying stories.

Physical movement can also be a valuable tool in building community. Our athletics trainer created weekly virtual workout challenges for older students and adults. Seeing peers and coaches outside created a sense of solidarity during isolation. This popular activity offered a regular challenge that helped our community connect, learn from each other, and laugh.

Look for ways to blend movement with creativity. In dance class, pre-K students moved through a riotously funny series of dinosaur movements, such as pretending to be a T. rex with leaves in its mouth struggling to walk in muddy swamp water. To watch a screen filled with 4-year-olds giggling as they imitate large non-avian dinosaurs is to see an important triumph of the collective imagination of the classroom.

Consider Activities for the Home

In addition to required academics, provide regular space and opportunity for games that students can participate in outside of synchronous video learning. Consider activities that can include the whole family, as many are home together.

Video clips can be a useful tool for offering games at home. Our middle school director created videos in the style of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? by recording geography challenges in front of a park or open space, offering clues to his location. Students read about various parks in the area to discover the answer.

If the school is operating on a hybrid schedule, consider send-home games for off days when students will not physically be in the classroom. Our elementary students received a bingo board with nine options, from drawing a self-portrait to creating wearable art. The options gave students something fun to accomplish during their off day, while parents could choose which options worked best for their home and schedule. The card may include low-cost activities such as: have a dance party, draw something you are grateful for, or collect data and create a chart or graph.

Offer asynchronous games that students complete at home and share with the class. While live games are often held over video chat, give students the opportunity to add contributions through technology. For example, students can upload pictures and videos to Padlet, a digital bulletin board, or short videos to Flipgrid. Young students were asked to answer a question on Flipgrid related to the week’s lesson, such as “Describe the water cycle in your own words” or “Tell the class about today’s weather.”

Incorporate Games in Assessments

As the school year moved into its final weeks, teachers looked for ways for students to consolidate and share knowledge and have fun doing it, particularly in an environment in which traditional assessments were difficult.

Asking students to design games opens up a new avenue for creating meaningful year-end experiences. For example, in our school, geometry students were asked to design and create their own right triangle puzzle using the Pythagorean theorem. Students created a wide array of puzzle projects, including creating cities, analyzing the shape of Doritos, and exploring the angles of pyramids and mountains. Students shared their projects with each other through online videos.

While the pandemic adds extra stress for many families, games can be a simple but fun opportunity not only for learning engagement, but for moments of joy together. 

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