Playing to learn

Kevin Beckett

Westonbirt Arboretum, Tetbury, Gloucestershire, GL8 8QS, UK


Wherever they are played, games have two basic purposes:

In the first instance, rules, structures and equipment are simple; the game is the end in itself. In the second, the rules, structures and equipment are often more complex – the game is an instrument illustrating a concept, process or idea; the game is a means to an end.

All successful games contain the following essential elements in varying proportions:

However, the overriding criteria for a successful game are that it must be FUN. Pleasure is paramount.

Where games are used for educational purposes, a balance must be maintained between the pleasure enjoyed by playing the game and the content/information it is intended to convey. The complexity of the game will be determined by the development level of the intended participants. Presentation techniques play an important role in the (often) on-the-spot adaptation of games and activities for specific audiences. Appropriate adaptive techniques enable us to take a game and re-engineer it, with a suitable level of detailed explanation, for use with a variety of age groups. The best games can be fun for everyone. The best stories have universal appeal.

A game may be enhanced or refined by:

In developing an educational game, the first step is to identify the idea, concept, or process which the game is intended to teach and the context in which it will be used. In most cases it is better to restrict the scope of a game as a means of preserving its clarity, e.g. a game which illustrates photosynthesis or seed dispersal would be more appropriate than a game intended to illustrate the complete life-cycle of a plant. It is often useful to consider a variety of naturally-occurring examples of the idea, concept or process to establish its simplest expression and to use that as the basis for developing the game. Most botanical processes can then be clarified into a sequence of interactions which will form the platform for the game.

The translation of those interactions into the game itself will be influenced by the following important considerations:

Having developed the structure of the game, it is important to trial it with an appropriate group. During this activity, it is beneficial to enlist the assistance of a colleague, for either or preferably both of the following functions:

A 'good' game can be a powerful educating tool, but it must be carefully developed and enthusiastically presented to have maximum impact.


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