Brain Game Time!

Game time is being cut in exchange for increased direct instruction time in reading and mathematics. But research shows that games actually nourish the brain—and one teacher uses them daily in her classroom.

While celebrating the students’ growth in my middle school reading class, a member of the administrative team asked my students, “Why do you think that all of you grew so much in reading?”

One of my seventh-grade boys said, “We play games.”

Another jumped in and said, “Yeah, this is one of my favorite classes because we get to move around and do a Brain Game every day. It helps me focus on the next part of class. Then I can really read.”

Rather than feeling dismayed that my students didn’t immediately name a literacy strategy or a book that they really enjoyed, I felt glee. It’s working, I thought. 

Three years ago, I recognized that my students needed to feel comfortable and safe in my classroom in order to take risks academically. Notably, many of my students had low self-esteem because of their history of being labeled a “struggling reader.” That’s why I started scheduling “Brain Games”: brief three-to-five-minute games that build connections, reduce fears, raise self-esteem, practice social skills and re-energize students after doing focused work.

Research supports incorporating movement and play into learning (Ramstetter, Murray, & Garner, 2010; Barros, Silver & Stein, 2009; Schultzke, 2014). It’s also identified as one strategy in an inclusive plan to make school more equitable and engaging for low-income students (Gorski, 2013). So why aren’t more games being played? Quite simply because of pressure to conform to the message that we need more reading and math time, and more direct instruction, to perform better on standardized measurements of success. Slowly and systematically, we have pushed out recess, movement and play, despite the fact that brain-based research tells us movement and play nourish the brain.

I’ve had to push back to build in Brain Game time, but it’s now part of my classroom’s daily schedule. After 22 minutes of focused reading or writing time, a gentle bell dings. When we hear the bell, we all head to the center of the room, form a circle and begin playing. Students choose from an established toolkit of about 10 games that they learned at the beginning of the school year.

These games meet specific criteria, and many come from my background in experiential education. They are purposefully not competitive and focus instead on building group morale, laughing together, moving and reaching group goals. Many of the games are drawn from Laurie Frank’s Journey Towards the Caring Classroom: Using Adventure to Create Community in the Classroom (2004, 2013) and Spencer Kagan’s Silly Sports and Goofy Games (2000). Our toolkit offers me flexibility as an educator: On days when we are preparing for a summative test or project, we may play a game that creates focus. When serious topics are impacting our community, we may play a game that helps build unity.

In my middle school classroom, because of game time, I’ve seen higher growth than ever before on multiple measurements of success, including standardized tests. Most importantly, my students are happy, focused and comfortable while learning and practicing the strategies that will make them better readers and writers. They care for each other and feel connected to one another—and to me—through our Brain Games. 

Here are a few of the Brain Games I use in my class:

  • Moon Ball (L. Frank, 2004)

The goal is to keep a beach ball in the air for as long as possible, counting the number of team taps. We record our highest scores and keep working to increase the number.

  • Pass the Stone (exact origin unknown—derived from Native American and West Indian stone games)

Students stand in a tight circle with one person in the middle. Each player’s hands are cupped, and students try to pass the stone without being seen by the player in the middle. All students move their hands to the right, pretending that they are passing the stone while chanting, “Pass the stone, pass the stone, where it goes, nobody knows.” The student in the middle gets three chances to find the stone.

  • Cup/Card Stack (various origins)

Students have three minutes to work together to build the highest towers they can using cups or cards.

Have your students lost recess, play or movement time? If so, how has that impacted your community? What games are you playing in your classroom? 

Resources for Planning Games

Cummings, Michelle. (2007). Playing with a Full Deck: 52 Team Activities Using a Deck of Cards! Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing.

Frank, Laurie S. (2013).  Journey Toward the Caring Classroom. Bethany, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing & Distribution.

Gessford, M., & McGlamery, J. (2010).  Focus Your Locus: Activities that Focus the Power of Individual and Groups. Bethany, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing & Distribution.

Kagan, Spencer. (2000). Silly Sports and Goofy Games. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

Works Cited

Barros, R.M., Silver, E. J., and Stein, R.E.K., (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 12(2): 431-436.

Murray, R. & Ramstetter, C. (2012). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 13(1): 183 -188.

Gorski, P. (2013). Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty:  Strategies for Erasing the Achievement Gap. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Schulzke, E. (2014, August 10). Why has U.S. academic success dropped? The answer may be on the playground. Deseret News.

Bintliff is a reading teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wisconsin. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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