Games as Educational Tools

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Having a Blast Homeschooling! It’s all about engaging children’s natural sense of play, curiosity, and wonder, instead of the grind of more formal ‘teaching.’ This is from the chapter on Games, which is about how common board games and card games can contribute to basic education. I welcome your comments and feedback on how you make homeschool fun for your children and yourself, and what you like most and least about homeschooling. Thanks! — Cormac


Board games, or ‘parlor games’ (as they used to be called) are a great way of getting children to learn lots of important things without realizing that they’re being taught. Games teach sportsmanship, winning and losing, operating within a structured framework of artificial rules. Plus, they’re fun! In the informal setting of playing a game, your child will often open up and talk to you in ways that they won’t in a more formal school setting. We like to have drinks and treats while we play. Don’t worry if the popcorn butter gets all over the cards—cards are cheap!

Be careful not to turn the games into a ‘lesson’ of some kind. Kids educate themselves when they play. Just help them to learn to play, and the educational aspects will take care of themselves organically. Remember what my cousin Phil from Philadelphia always says: “If you get too serious, you’ll spoil all the fun.”

Parcheesi. The first game I learned to play with my dad was Parcheesi. He had played it as a child. It has some fundamental concepts suitable for very small children, such as rolling dice, counting moves, making a blockade, capturing the opponent’s pieces, and basic winning and losing. Around the same time, he started me on Checkers, too. King me! I also played Candyland and Chutes and Ladders with my mom, both of which are good for children who can’t read yet. At this writing, both of them are still available on Amazon for under $12.00.


Monopoly is a great way to teach basic economic strategy. The Community Chest cards, the Chance cards, and the Title Deeds all provide reading practice. There’s money to count and a bank to keep. There are concepts of buying, selling, and trading property. Playing monopoly increases problem-solving skills—you have to use your brain to keep from going bankrupt. You have to make decisions quickly, and use your money wisely. It’s a good introduction to basic business concepts such as saving money, investing money, and buying and selling property. Later in the game, when each player has properties needed by another, negotiating skills become important. It’s also a game the whole family can play together, with older ones helping the younger ones. (I am always the Hat.)


Chess is a one-on-one game that requires foreseeing many different possible moves, and choosing the best one. It’s mostly about logic, but a certain amount of bluff can come in handy, too. My dad began teaching me how to play chess when I was five. In the spirit of helping to learn, he’d often ask me, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Sometimes he’d make me start without the queen, or some of the other pieces, to keep me flexible, not depending on one particular strategy. I joined the chess club in junior high school, and developed my playing style against many other opponents. When I was fourteen, I beat Dad for the first time. It was a strangely sad, moving experience, but he was proud of me.

PokerPoker is, in a way, the intellectual complement of chess. It’s been said that “Chess and Poker between them sum up the human psyche.” Poker helps children learn to read their opponents accurately and sharpen their ability to make judgments. Unlike chess, however, in poker you often have to make decisions based on incomplete information. Those decisions are not based strictly on logic, either. They are, in part, based on potential risk and reward. There is also the concept of ‘cutting your losses.’ The poker skills of calculating risk, projecting authority, and assessing opponents can all be applied in real life.

For those who have objections to gambling, consider playing with just the chips. However, for full effectiveness, genuine gain and loss are an important part of the play. Some play with pennies, but it could be anything: books, chores, treats, anything that gives a genuine sting upon loss, and a real triumph upon gain.

CribbageCribbage. I used to play cribbage with my dad frequently. The gameplay is sufficiently relaxed that we could converse while we played. He used to say that he liked cribbage because it was a mixture of luck and skill, the same as real life. You had to play with the cards you were dealt, but you could use your acquired skill to maximize the result. In cribbage, you can score better than your opponent, even if he has a better hand.

I played cribbage with my boys, too. It’s how they practiced the basic addition facts: fifteen-two, fifteen-four, and a run makes…how much? The traditional pegboard scorekeeping system is a constant exercise in small addition. Also, it’s just plain fun.

Of course, these are just a few examples. There are plenty of games to choose from. No doubt your family’s favorite games have plenty to offer, too. The most important thing, remember, is to keep the mood light and playful. Kids learn best when they’re having fun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *