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The Games Children Play


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 and 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 that 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 into developing an ecological morality.

Rationale for Use of Games

Games provide means for students to become more active in their own learning while allowing all students to participate (Boocock & Schild, 1968). Games encourage active and simultaneous participation of all students and encourage student to student 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 that students look forward to participating in and places students 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 how people are intertwined with it, now teachers should 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 Midwest. Nine teachers agreed to pilot the games as part of this research. All students played three games of the six 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 these topics, and in some cases describe the value of an area (such as Wetlands). Games were designed to be played for five days each, with no intervention from the teacher other than to explain rules, procedures, or clarify questions. Students were encouraged to interact with and 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 pre and post-tested with an instrument developed by Alan Voelker and Robert Horvat (1976) to measure environmentally responsible behavior. This was a Likert-type 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. Analysis of Covariance 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.

Table 1. results of ANCOVA on Post Test and Gender

Variable F significance
Gender 4.78 0.03

Table 2. results of ANCOVA on Post Test and Games

Variable F significance
Game 1 8.79 0.003
Game 2 8.79 0.003
Game 3 7.85 0.005
Game 4 7.85 0.005

Table 1 indicates 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.

Table 2 shows that only four of the six games played by the students resulted in significant changes in reported environmentally responsible behavior. Significance levels for all tests were reported only if at the 0.01 level.


The results of this study were encouraging. Students who had scored low on environmentally responsible behavior increased their scores significantly. The increases however, were significant for only four of the games and boys' scores out paced increases for girls. The games covering the topics of pollution and world population did not increase scores This was an unexpected result but while students answered questions on the instrument they also wrote comments in the margins concerning their beliefs about them. This helped to clarify why these games may not have been successful. One of the statements most commonly commented on was, "Couples should not have more than two children." Students' comments on this item showed they believed parents should have as many children as they want, and having any number of children was a personal right for any one living in this country. Through other items on the test, the students pointed out that they felt that the earth would soon have too many people and that the number of people in this country should not increase but they seemingly could not reconcile this with the former statement. The other area of concern was pollution. Most students agreed that people cause most pollution, but when the item, stated "People (like me) are the cause of most pollution," they often scratched out the "like me" before agreeing with the statement. This may be typical of the adult population as a whole as well, nobody would like to be blamed for damaging the environment. This could be the reason the game that covered this topic "Individual Effects on the Environment" had little effect.

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 as well as understanding 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 that students will become more aware of what they are contributing 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 these 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.