Game-Based Learning

6 Playful Learning Games at Toy Fair

Whether you’re teaching about molecular arrangements or parts of speech, consider using games that put playfulness ahead of content delivery, because that’s where mastery happens.

March 28, 2016
Photo credit: Matt Farber

Child psychologist Lev Vygotsky famously wrote, "In play, a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself." It is through play that the zone of proximal development (PDF) -- the space where students move from novice to master -- occurs. Playful learning is the true value of game-based learning. Without freedom to play, learning through the zone of proximal development becomes stifled.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the New York Toy Fair. I felt like Tom Hanks in the film Big -- a grown-up surrounded by almost every toy imaginable. It was the largest event of its kind in the Western Hemisphere! While there, I was fortunate to speak with several innovators in the game business about how playfulness can afford, or invite, learning. After all, play is what occurs within the construct of a game. Below is an incomplete, unranked list of new educational toys and games that I had the opportunity to preview:

1. Tiggly

There are three separately-sold Tiggly sets: Shapes, Words, and Math. There are also class sets. Each box includes five tactile toys, made from silicone, that interact with its growing library of mobile apps (download instructions are included in each set). Learning through tangible play is embedded in Tiggly's pedagogical approach. Late 2015 saw the release of Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen, a sight-word game featuring Cookie Monster and working with (and without) Tiggly's Words vowels. Playing the app, children experiment with letter combinations while learning sounds associated with spelling. At the Toy Fair, I tested the new Tiggly Shapes Got Talent, which uses its Shapes toys to tell an interactive story about the properties of shapes. It was developed with Herbert Ginsburg, PhD, the Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Along with Carole Greenes and Robert Balfanz, he developed the math curriculum Big Math for Little Kids for four- and five-year-olds.

2. Bloxels

Another exciting new toy that I saw was Bloxels, a visually-based game-design system from Pixel Press. The box includes 250 colored cubes, a square board with cube-sized cutouts, a link to a free app, and easy-to-follow instructions. To play, place the physical cubes anywhere on the board. Next, open the free app and capture the cubed arrangement with the camera. Each cube has a different assigned property: for example, blue cubes become water and red cubes turn into lava. Rather than coding, children build games through tactile play -- computational thinking is part of the experience. Recently, Bloxels hosted a Kids as Video Game Makers award show celebrating games built by entrants as young as age six.

3. Balance Beans

From ThinkFun comes Balance Beans, a simple-yet-challenging, non-digital math game. The set includes a seesaw, with nine gridded indentations on each side, and multi-colored plastic beans. The beans are either single, double, or in groups of three. The seesaw's fulcrum indicates equality -- when one side is tipped upward, that side is literally greater than the other. Moving the beans back a row on the seesaw grid visually and mathematically represents an increase in power. This abstract concept, as well as algebraic thinking, becomes meaningful through actions of play. The teeter-totter mechanic effectively illustrates what an equation actually is: balance on both sides of the equal sign, not an output. After having students play Balance Beans, a teacher can introduce mathematical expressions, thus facilitating knowledge transfer from skills learned through play.

4. Circuit Maze

Also from ThinkFun, Circuit Maze uses a maze mechanic to teach electrical circuitry in a playful way. Players choose from one of 60 challenge cards and then place game tokens (parts of the circuit) from the battery source to a beacon, causing it to light up. STEM skills are presented as a puzzle -- as players learn the rules of the game, they learn the rules of electronic circuitry. The set includes switches, too, just like an actual circuit board. Using the switch interface alters the direction of the current in the maze. When I played, I saw how computational and logical thinking were deeply imbued in the design. Not only did I have fun playing, I also learned some of the fundamentals of electronic circuitry.

5. Bring Your Own Book

An inventive party game, Bring Your Own Book, published by Gamewright, is perfect for English language arts classrooms. As the title suggests, you must supply your own books. Next, select from a deck of category cards and race to find a sentence or phrase in your book to fit that particular category. Bring Your Own Book is a fun, non-digital way to play with text. Students can pick out literary devices, learning ELA Common Core Standards without even realizing it! Also, it's an engaging and highly social approach to having students share reading assignments. Up to eight students at a time can play, and the game takes about 20 minutes -- perfect for any class period.

6. Happy Atoms

Designed by Schell Games and published by Thames & Kosmos, the Happy Atoms game brings an element (pun intended!) of fun to molecular theory. Happy Atoms is a physical kit of interlocking molecules that can be scanned with a mobile app. It's the result of a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences and is intended to improve how chemistry is taught. I first saw it demonstrated at Schell Games' studio during an open house at the 2015 Serious Play Conference. As a playful toy, students can use it to experiment with molecules, discovering which combinations result in different properties. The Next Generation Science Standard of covalent bonds (PDF) between molecules is part of Happy Atoms' core mechanics of play. A fourth-grade child can piece together two hydrogen molecules with an oxygen, hold the tablet camera to it, and watch the model transform to water -- right on the device's screen! For more, check out this video:

The games that I previewed at the Toy Fair invited playful learning. Many blended in tactile, hands-on elements to enhance the digital experience. Some were non-digital and used social mechanics. What's more, each put playfulness ahead of content delivery. When I played, I had fun in the experience. These experiences can give students an authentic frame of reference when learning new concepts in class, like molecular arrangements, parts of speech, or the sounds that letters make in words. When selecting games for your classroom, be mindful of playful affordances.

What new, playful games are you bringing to your students? Please share in the comments below.

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