Can you learn by playing? Board games to train the brain


When we play chess or cards, we can feel like we are racking our brains. But is it true that they stimulate our mind? Can playing board games help us train memory, attention or impulse control?

Play, in addition to a recognized right of childhood, is what allows us to learn from our environment from an early age. By playing we interact with what surrounds us, we interact with other people, we put different abilities into practice and discover their results in a safe environment.

Although free play is wonderful and we should recover public spaces for it, guided play is also a powerful learning tool. And there is no better example of a guided or regulated game than a board game.

Board games for our brain

In a previous article we talked about research in childhood and older people that concludes that playing board games could favor the development and maintenance of executive functions and educational skills.

That’s why game-based learning (ABJ) or gamification are so fashionable, two methodologies to which in our research group we have paid special attention. These active learning methodologies are based on the use of complete games in a playful context (ABJ) or game elements (for example, rewards or narrative) in a non-playful context (gamification) to work on certain educational content or competencies.

We are not only talking about learning mathematics or reading comprehension, but also about training basic cognitive processes for good academic performance and personal development.

What have you done at school today? Play!

Although we are aware of the importance of playing as children, it seems that, as we grow, we choose to reduce that playing time considerably. Life runs over us and we have to prioritize what is productive. But what if what is apparently playful is also productive?

When we consider bringing games to the classroom, doubts may arise about their educational benefits. If they play, are they losing class? What’s the point of playing a memory game with cards if what I want is for my son or daughter to know how to add and subtract? How is a commercial game designed to entertain going to be educational?

Scientific literature suggests that executive functions are a key element in educational performance, job success, and good mental health. There is a significant relationship between good development of these cognitive processes (working memory, inhibitory control and flexibility) and mathematics, reading comprehension or science.

Today, we have a wide variety of modern board games that could help us launch these cognitive processes. We are talking about card, board or dice games with different themes and mechanics, for all tastes. Education and psychology professionals rub their hands with everything they can do with them to help the development of boys and girls in a stimulating and attractive way. But is there evidence of its use in the classroom? Or do the eyes deceive us?

Board games in the classroom, yes or no?

To answer this question, in 2019 a research project was started with the Almeria association AFIM21 , the board game publisher Mercurio and the NeuroPGA research group at the University of Lleida, called “Conectar Jugando” . Their objective was to study the effectiveness of using modern board games in the primary classroom to train executive functions.

To this end, intervention studies were carried out during school and extracurricular hours and a committee of experts in psychology, education and research was held to evaluate a wide selection of commercial board games.

The first study of this project was carried out in Almería. Teachers from four primary schools, with the support and coordination of AFIM21, implemented a neuro-educational program with board games in the classroom with 283 boys and girls at risk of social exclusion. After the intervention, a significant reduction in the students’ executive dysfunctions was detected, which means that playing could have helped them present fewer difficulties in their daily behaviors associated with cognitive deficits.

In this first study we were missing a control group and a more objective criterion in the selection of the games. Therefore, in the following studies we base ourselves on the evaluations of a group of experts . To do this, they assessed the cognitive processes that could be activated in each game. And then they chose the games with the highest scores in each one.

As we all know, 2020 was not an easy year. Nor for those investigations in which data from other people were collected in person. How were we going to study the effectiveness of games in the classroom when we still didn’t know our viral enemy well? Contagion prevention measures included restricting group activities that involved contact. So it was time to get creative.

The games were adapted to be used by videoconference during after-school hours. During the 2020-2021 academic year, we carry out online sessions with groups of between two and four boys and girls and compare pre- and post-test results with a group on a waiting list. In this way, we realized that games could favor certain processes such as flexibility or verbal fluency, but that this online methodology was not showing results as promising as previous face-to-face studies.

What could have influenced the results? Was the sample small? Perhaps the previous experience with the games that the participants had? Or perhaps the limitations of working remotely were what influenced these results? Everything indicates that playing a board game in digital format is not as beneficial as playing it face to face with our friends.

Board games make us better at math and reading

At this point, we already knew that board games could be tools with great potential in school to benefit our brain, but more weighty evidence was lacking. So, when Covid-19 gave us a little respite and it was safe to enter the schools, that’s where we went. Nine educational centers in Madrid and Lleida (some of them rural ) participated in this project, in total 621 boys and girls from first to sixth grade.

When we compared the group that participated in the cognitive training program with board games with the group that continued with their regular classes, we found that the boys and girls who had played significantly improved their basic executive functions, especially working memory. . Not only that, but the group that played during class hours was also the one that showed the greatest increase in the number of correct answers on math and reading tasks.

The results of the “Connect Playing” project provide, for the first time with quantitative data, a considerable sample and rigorous scientific methodology, evidence on the cognitive and educational impact that the use of board games can have in the primary classroom. Board games could be as good as, and even more effective than, traditional methodologies for training our brain and practicing our math and language skills.

Games in the classroom yes, and now what?

However, many new questions arise, as in all research. Is it by stimulating executive functions that math and reading improve? Is it because these educational competencies are working directly with these games? Is this methodology appropriate to address the diversity of the classroom? What benefits can it have on children with learning difficulties or neurodevelopmental disorders ?

There’s still a lot to do, so let’s roll the dice and find out what’s coming.

Author Bio: Nuria Vita-Barrull is Postdoctoral Researcher, Jaume March-Llanes is an Associate Professor, Jorge Moya Higueras is a Hired Professor Doctor of Psychology and Veronica Estrada Plana is a Collaborating Postdoctoral Researcher all at the University of Lleida