Education is evolving, and over the years it has changed a great deal. Gone are the days where the teacher stands and dictates from a book whilst students write down the information word for word, and learn it by rote. Things have changed. Researchers found that children had different ways of learning and that a teacher-led ‘chalk and talk’ method was only really useful for a limited number of students. They began to understand the importance of play in a child’s education (Froebel) and about different stages in a child’s development (Piaget) and how a child’s ability to learn and succeed can be influenced by different factors including social ones and the help of others (Vygotsky). New buzzwords came into education such as inclusion, cross-curricular learning, fixed and growth mindsets (Dweck) and all the time our understanding of what works expanded with each new theory. Straight lines of front-facing desks were replaced with smaller groups of children sat around tables, encouraged to interact with one another, to play and explore, and to ask questions of themselves and the teacher. We got playdough and messy play, Forest Schools and digital classrooms, as passive early learning was replaced by child-led, active learning. Read on to discover the pros and cons of gamification in the early years and see how your setting can include game-based learning.

Arguably, the biggest innovation in education recently has been over the last 20 months or so, when many schools in the UK and around the world were forced to close their physical doors and take lessons online into virtual classrooms due to COVID-19. Forced to abandon traditional routes, educationalists began using technology more and more to help facilitate the learning process. Teachers learned Zoom, Teams and Google Classroom, and suddenly, everyone was trying to find innovative ways to engage a class of students all studying at home!

This burgeoning of online and virtual lessons and the ever-evolving technologies we have in our arsenal, have brought with it a greater interest in what we now call “game-based learning” and “gamification”. Although related, these two concepts are different but have recently become almost synonymous with how computers, tablets, apps and other devices are now being used to educate our children. But are they all they are cracked up to be, and how are they helping?

What is game-based learning?

The clue here is in the title – it is a type of active learning experience that happens within a game framework. But it should have very specific learning objectives with measurable outcomes. Games often need a high degree of child interaction within the game, to access this content which is why children find them engaging – there are things to do, buttons to press and feedback to get. The feedback that children get is key because as they progress, they learn from the experience and challenge themselves to improve with greater complexity and/or different levels. Games usually offer a multi-sensory approach to learning, and help children absorb the lesson through visual, auditory and kinaesthetic systems. An example might be a specific game or app which helps children learn to spell or a maths game that helps them recognise numbers within the format of a car race or shooting gallery.

What is gamification?

Gamification is related, but different. It is the process of adding game elements (such as competition or penalties/rewards) to a learning experience with the aim of increasing a person’s engagement or enjoyment. Therefore, gamification may have game elements, but they tend to be separate from the learning content and gamification does not necessarily have any specific learning outcomes, although the player can often learn things through playing the game. Examples in the classroom might be using a reward system in which children earn points and go on a leader board, or a game such as bingo or Blockbusters used simply to test a pupil’s knowledge.

Advantages of game-based learning

Research has shown that playing video games can lead to brain growth in the pre-frontal cortex, the hippocampus and the cerebellum as children try to beat different levels and use problem-solving skills. They shift into problem-solving ways of thinking and are often more engaged in their learning and video games can help improve attention and spatial-motor skills. Other research links game-based learning to the development of a growth mindset as there is often an initial ‘trial and error’ approach which eventually leads to success, and they begin to see ‘failing’ not as an inevitable endpoint, but as something that can be overcome with practice, skill and effort.

Are there any disadvantages?

There are some cautionary tales around gamification, especially if the games are overly competitive and people do not deal well with losing. Some students may be reluctant even to try for fear of failing and the games may demotivate children rather that engage them. In addition, if students are left alone in front of electronic devices at the expense of quality adult or child interactions, then problems can occur in language and communication later on.

Does gamification have to involve technology?

Game-based learning and gamification do not have to be about technology. Chess has been a way of teaching strategic thinking for hundreds of years, and many teachers remember playing board games such as scrabble and ludo as children, which can be just as helpful to teach spelling/vocabulary and maths as the latest, trending app.

What does this mean for early years?

The market is full of games to help children learn, and you have probably invested in some electronic games to help your students in different areas. There are plenty of lists on the internet of the best games out there for early years children, and you can read reviews and recommendations from other professionals too. Most children’s TV channels have online games to support their children’s programming which are usually free and offer a degree of online safety which it is important to consider. But don’t forget the simplicity and educational value of a board game and dice too. Research on game-based learning is still being collated, but perhaps we, as early years educators, should remember the teaching of Lev Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development, which states that children can increase their skills and knowledge better with the help of a “more knowledgeable other”, and he wasn’t talking about a tablet or computer – but a caring and supportive adult!

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