The Parent 'Hood: A look at the value of various games in learning.
Your elementary-age kids get a lot of “games” for homework — word searches, jumbles, crossword puzzles, etc. Is this teaching them anything?
Parent advice (from our panel of staff contributors):
I don’t remember most homework being word searches and the like, but I do remember some that were themed (the Civil War, etc.), and I think it’s good practice for mental acuity and for spelling. You’d have to know that “Beauregard” was of some significance to find the general’s name in a puzzle. It might be a question for the teacher, though.
— Maureen Hart
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The only guess I could hazard is that word searches might reinforce the thrill of the hunt for kids; maybe finding a word on a page prepares kids to take on more complex challenges down the road, such as finding a genetic marker for cancer or Alzheimer’s or alcoholism in the wilds of our DNA.
— Wendy Donahue
Word games as educational tools have a long history of inspiring strong opposition — and equally strong support.
Supporters say they build stamina (a good skill for test-taking), help kids zero in on details, teach kids about word patterns and reinforce spelling. Detractors call them a big, fat waste of time.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, says Clark Aldrich, author of “Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education” (Greenleaf Book Group Press).
“There are all kinds of ways to make word stuff and math stuff more fun and engaging,” says Aldrich.
Not, in itself, a bad thing.
“Crossword puzzles are great. Word jumbles are great. Hangman is good,” he says. “Anything that gets you thinking about structure and what letters come before other letters. Connect-the-dots is bad. Mazes are sort of useless.”
The critical divide between useful educational tool and giant waste of time, Aldrich says, is how much intrinsic value a game has.
“Extrinsic motivators tend to raise a lot of red flags,” he says. “Intrinsic motivators tend to be very valuable.”
Extrinsic motivation emphasizes the importance of completing tasks, earning rewards, avoiding negative consequences. Intrinsic motivation emphasizes development of curiosity, exploration and understanding to learn a new skill.
Games are inherently extrinsically motivated, since the point is to complete and “win” at them. But games that also include some intrinsic motivation are the most educational of the bunch, says Aldrich.
No reason to be discouraged, then, by the sheer notion of a “game” being used as homework. But if the goal appears to be simply completing the game — without a lot of learning along the way — it may be time to speak to your children’s teachers about the balance.
“It’s always good to visualize different ways of approaching and teaching the same content,” says Aldrich. “It’s more about how do you better intrinsically rather than externally motivate students.”
Have a solution? Your 16-year-old son spends all his time with his girlfriend. Should you nudge him to keep up with his male buddies?