Is it a good idea to play at school?

When I was a high school student, I had teachers who tried to recover their authority with educational games. I didn’t like them. They were bad players as well as bad teachers. However, at the same time I learned a lot of things during the great games I played with the Boy Scouts. So, what was wrong with high school?

I doubt that they’re playing in order to increase their attention skill. They play. And it’s enough!

If we consider the tasks involved in games and works, there is not much differences between the two kinds of activity. It’s wonderfully described in the excerpt from Tom Sawyer that I published in my last article (I made a secret code of it).

Both, game and work, require a lot of energy. Just look at the children! They spend much more calories on the playground than most adults in their office. Playing tag has certainly nothing to do with lazyness. Games can realy be exhausting.

The repetition of the task is not enough to distinguish jobs from games. We tend to believe that routines are boring. Just have a look on video games! They involve a lot of fast repetitive actions. Candy Crush is a worldwide success. Before Candy Crush, there was Tetris, the iconic game, I daresay, of the early days of Nintendo. This game was no pretty: only a few geometrical blocks in grey. And still, it was addictive. How can we consider multiplication tables boring in comparison?

Games have rules and very strict routines. On the playground no action will be considered valid unless you pronounce some ritual words in a precise way. Woe to the child who stirs a little bit from the magic formula!

Games can be dangerous too. No need to remind that simple fact to the parents. Or maybe yes, as nothing really goes without saying, but that’s not the point. I mean, danger is an obvious part in many games, especially boys’ games. How comes that children are so willing to do silly, time-consuming, exhausting and dangerous activities?

Games are free. Or, to be precise, you are free to play or not. You decide by yourself to commit to the rules. You’re normally free to leave the game, or it ceases to be a game. Games are not played because of their utility. When you do any kind of activity because of the salary, it ceases to be a game, and becomes a job.

You may object that games can be useful, in education for instance. But that utility is incidental. Children don’t play games because they want to learn. They don’t play game to fulfill a duty. They play for the pleasure of the activity itself. Of course, they happen to learn when playing. They love to learn while playing. But the fact is that they love to learn when it is not an obligation. As a teacher, you may be surprised to see how well the children can remember the unimportant fun facts that are not in the curriculum, while they are reluctant to study the grammar lesson. You may think: “Well, you’ve said it, they remember the fun facts but grammar is dull.” Not even so. If I speak incidentally of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait during a French lesson, the pupils will remember that the very name of the strait means “the Gate of Laments”. But if I mention it during a geography lesson, this fact will perhaps not be enough to retain their attention. And, by the way, there are some methods to make a grammar lesson fun, or at least not so boring.

I usually feel quite reluctant to play the serious games that are sometimes imposed in professional seminars. If I except the relative novelty and the fact that they break a little bit the working routine, serious games can be as boring as any task, with a little share of ridiculousness. I’m also sometimes on the very unpleasant impression of being manipulated. No fake enthousiasm from the facilitator can erase the fact that I am obliged to attend his session. No need to pretend the contrary. It’s plain obvious that I would do something else if I could. I’m here because it’s my job and a part of my salary is at stake. You’ve got the same issue in a class. You cannot motivate the students just by telling them that the activity is fun or interesting. They perfectly know that they’re at school by obligation, be it a legal or a parental obligation. And they will tell you. No need to pretend. Furthermore, they are perfectly able to understand that they have some duties. It is much more satisfying for everybody to just set the obligations than to try to manipulate the taste of the students. For those reasons I wouldn’t recommend to make games the core of your lessons. There is an inherent contradiction between the institutional framework of the school, with its regulation, its program, its exams, and on the other hand the freedom of games. It doesn’t mean that games cannot have some place at school, but rather as a side note, like a dessert, not as a main course.

And I wouldn’t even recommend to speak of games as games at school. If you want them to remain entertaining, you should be ready to renounce them if they don’t please the students. When you play with a group of teenagers, it’s essential to pay attention to their reactions and to figure out the point when they become tired of the play. The bartender game is certainly a good way to introduce a group of new students. A player, the bartender, take orders from the others and must give them what they want with the name of the customer, like “A coca-cola for Jack, a draft beer for Jesse.” But if the adults prolong the game until the teenagers know all the names perfectly, the game becomes horribly boring. You should never do that! If you really need to do the activity up to the end, don’t say it’s a game. Just say it’s an exercise. If the children do have fun, so good! If not, you haven’t lost anything. But it’s up to the teacher. You can use “game” if it’s some kind of reward and not an essential part of the lesson.

Next time, we will try to explain how to make students play with simple tips, and why Tetris is actually a good game.

Fun fact

Etymologically, school means game. The greek word skholê had simultaneously the two meanings, the place where you learn and leisure. And the latin word ludus covered the exact same meanings. But in the Antiquity, only a few people could afford to get a proper education. It was not an obligation, but a luxury. The ideal of the elite was to not work at all (they had slaves to work in their stead). Only those who could achieve that ideal could actually go to school for a long period of time. That’s food for the mind, isn’t it?

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