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The Games Children Play

Volume 1 Number 15 - December 1997

Dr. Patricia A. Hewitt


Environmental educators agree that respect for the environment, the teaching of values as related to the environment, and encouraging a change in environmentally responsible behavior should all be integral parts of any environmental curriculum. Environmental education may become one of the most important areas of teaching as the balance in the natural environment becomes unstable with continued destruction of vital ecosystems. Young children are eager to learn about their surroundings. This is evident as they explore. dig, collect and become engrossed with the discovery of new bugs and other organisms. Beginning environmental education as soon as a child enters school seems to be indicated as they are already intimately involved with it. Stressing it in school also validates the concepts and discoveries they have already made. Actively involving students in their communities and in solving local environmental problems encourages them to become active at a more global level. Knowledge alone cannot influence the protection of the environment. Action is intimately related to how people value their knowledge, how much they feel they can control their surroundings, and what happens within those surroundings (Hines, Hungerford & Tomera, 1987).

By interacting with his/her environment and in cooperation with peers, a child is able to reinforce a variety of internal developmental processes which learning triggers. Valuing may be one of the processes that has desirable influences on the selection of modes of action. Values that are learned through an environmental program that teaches values specifically, may influence children to develop an ecological morality.

Rationale for Use of Games

Games provide a means for students to become more active in their own learning while allowing all to participate (Boocock & Schild, 1968). Games encourage active and simultaneous participation and encourage learner-to-learner interactions, which are most influential on students' performance in instructional settings (Johnson & Johnson, 1980).

While content and knowledge are important components of all school programs, an occasional change in methodology may allow us to encourage those learners who otherwise might fall through the cracks. Games become an activity in which students look forward to participating, and places those who are unsure of themselves in a less threatening environment. Students become central to their own learning.

Even though the environmental movement has received much publicity in the last twenty years, public knowledge still remains low (Arcury & Johnson, 1987). Science has given us basic information about nature and its workings, and the ways in which people are intertwined with it.  Teachers should now take this knowledge and convey it to the next generation, so that they may make informed choices based on these facts.

This study involved the use of six environmental games by 295 students in six elementary schools in the Midwestern region of the United States. Nine teachers agreed to pilot-test the games as part of this research. All students played three of the six games, on topics including Wetlands, Pollution, Energy, World Population, Endangered Species, and Individual Effects on the Environment. The games were designed to teach facts, influence decisions related to the topics, and in some cases describe the value of an area (such as Wetlands). Games were each designed to be played for five days, with no intervention from the teacher other than to explain rules, procedures, or clarify questions. Students were encouraged to interact and to help each other with questions and answers. This aspect encouraged less competition and more cooperation among players. The students also were taught three of the units without the games in a more traditional manner using materials readily available to teachers, either through public domain or published curriculum materials such as Project Wild, Ranger Rick NatureScope and Zero Population Growth, Inc. Kits.

Students were preÄ and postÄtested with an instrument developed by Alan Voelker and Robert Horvat (1976) to measure environmentally responsible behavior. This was a LikertÄtype instrument with four possible answers; strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. The students' tests were scored with the most desirable answer receiving a four and the least desirable answer receiving a one. The Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA) method was used to analyze differences between pre and post test scores by age, gender, and the use of games. Only tables showing significant differences are reported here.
Results indicate that the format of the lessons, i.e. games, made a difference in the change of behavior reported by boys and girls. There may be many reasons for this result, one being that boys may have been encouraged to be more competitive in similar situations. Another may be that in any typical classroom setting, boys are generally more outspoken than girls. These factors may contribute to the level of comfort felt by students playing the games.

Results also show that only four of the six games played by the students resulted in significant changes in reported environmentally responsible behavior.


The results of this study were encouraging. Students who initially had low scores on environmentally responsible behavior increased their scores significantly. The increases were, however, significant for only four of the games, and boys' scores out paced increases for girls. Games covering the topics of pollution and world population did not increase scores. This was an unexpected result, but students' comments in the margins of the questionnairehelped to clarify why these games may not have been successful. For instance, one questionnaire statement, "Couples should not have more than two children" received many comments, showing students' beliefs that parents should have as many children as they want, and that having any number of children was a personal right for any one living in the USA. Through other items on the test, students commented that they felt the earth would soon have too many people, and that the number of people in the USA should not increase. They seemingly could not reconcile this with the former statement. Another area of concern was pollution.  While the majority of students agreed that people cause most pollution, they often scratched out the "like me" in the statement "People (like me) are the cause of most pollution" before agreeing with the statement. Nobody would like to be blamed for damaging the environment. This may be typical of the adult population as a whole as well. Similar reasons could have effected the outcome of the "Individual Effects on the Environment" game.

Although the results of this study are not conclusive, they suggest several implications for teachers. The first is that games can provide a medium in which students can learn. The games however, should be ones that the teacher designs to meet the needs of his or her own classroom and should focus not only on facts but on placing value on the knowledge gained.  Students should gain understanding of their importance in the overall balance of ecological systems. Secondly, children can be taught environmental topics through the use of games and significantly improve their reported environmental behavior. Thirdly, girls may need to be more involved in game playing so that they may benefit equally from this interesting and involving method of learning. This suggests that teachers allow their students to interact more in situations such as gaming so that students develop skills in cooperation and problem solving.

The purpose of this study was to try to determine the effectiveness of using games as a way to gain environmental understanding and to increase the advocacy that students feel toward the environment. The classroom atmosphere generated by gaming increases student participation in their own learning. It allows them to cooperate with each other and places less stress on getting a grade than on the actual learning. It is hoped that by learning more about the workings of the environment, students will become more aware of their contribution to the overall health of the planet on which they live.

Environmental advocacy and activism are areas of extreme importance to many environmental educators, and most would agree that this is the ultimate goal of an environmental program. By increasing the enjoyment of learning, perhaps students will be more inclined to act on the knowledge they have gained, and become actively involved in taking care of not only their immediate space but also that of the larger whole.


Arcury, T. & Johnson, T. (1987). Public environmental knowledge: A statewide survey. Journal of Environmental Education, 18 (4), 31-38.

Boocock, S.S., & Schild, E.O. (Ed.). (1969). Simulation Games in Learning. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
Hines, J., Hungerford, H.R., & Tomera, A.N. (1986). Analysis and synthesis of research on responsible environmental behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Education, 18(2), 1-8

Horvat, R. & Voelker, A. (1976). Using a likert scale to measure "environmental responsibility. Journal of Environmental Education, 8(1), 36Ä47.

Jaus, H. (1982). The effect of environmental education instruction on children's attitudes toward the environment. Science Education, 66(5), 689-692.

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (1980). Promoting constructive studentÄstudent relationships through cooperative learning. Washington, DC.: Minnesota University, National Support Systems Project. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 249 216)

Spiegel, D.L. (1990). Decoding and comprehension games and manipulatives. The Reading Teacher, 44(3), 258-261.

Dr. Patricia A. Hewitt is Assistant Professor for the Science Education Department of Educational Studies, The University of Tennessee at Martin, 240 Gooch Hall, Martin, Tennessee 38238, USA.  Tel: (901) 587 7210.  Fax: (901) 587 7205. Email:


Des jeux ‚ducatifs destinés … apprendre les éléments en rapport avec des sujets environnementaux sur les zones humides, la pollution, les espèces menacées, la population, l'énergie et les influences des individus sur l'environnement ont ét‚ le thème de cette étude portant sur 295 étudiants du Midwest de 4ème, 5ème et 6ème grade. Les ‚éudiants ont subi un pré-test et un post-test utilisant une méthode mise au point par Hovat et Voelker pour déterminer les changements dans le comportement et le sens des responsabilités face … l'environnement. On a trouv‚ des résultats significatifs entre les filles et les garçons et entre ceux qui ont joué … quatre des jeux et ceux qui n'y ont pas jou‚ du tout.


En Midwestern se diseñaron diversos juegos instructivos para la enseñanza medioambietal. El estudio se realizó en 295 estudiantes de cuarto, quinto y sexto grado. Los temas de estos juegos fueron: Tierras H£medas, Polución, Especies Amenazadas, Población, Energía y Efectos Individuales en el Medio Ambiente. A los estudiantes se les realizaron pruebas anteriores y otra posteriores al estudio usando el método de Horvat y Voelker para determinar los cambios en el comportamiento medioambiental de los estudiantes. Se encontraron resultados significativos entre chicos y chicas y entre estudiantes que jugaron cuatro de los juegos y aquellos que no jugaron ninguno.