by Michele Prestininzi
After taking a 20-year hiatus from public-school education, I decided to dip my toe back into the water and took a long-term substitute position as a six grade English teacher. Why, you may ask? I’d always wanted to teach middle-schoolers and was inspired by one of those reflective birthday moments where I felt a longing for change.
Well, things changed––with teaching––big time, particularly with the use of technology in the classroom. The school I taught in (or at least the class I took over) had gone completely digital. Few students carried a notebook, much less a pen. All note-taking, test-taking, writing, and researching was done on school-supplied Chromebooks. This digital platform changed the way teachers taught, and, interestingly, the way students expected to learn. Constant Wi-Fi was the gateway to a world of interactive, educational resources, particularly games. Blooket, Quizlet Live, Kahoot … the games were endless and ever-changing. Not a day went by without a student asking, “Can we play a game?”
However, these energetic 11-year-olds loved to play their recreational games, too. Honest Abes would ask if they could play a game once they finished their work––a dangling carrot for a job well done––while Sly Samis would secretly switch their screens from the task at hand to Fortnite or Rocket League until they got caught. For me, it was a constant game of cat and mouse.
I was shocked. As a mom of a gamer, I constantly battled with my son at home over the number of hours he spent playing Xbox, but I didn’t expect gaming to be an issue at school. I was intent on teaching writing and grammar while students were intent on building in Minecraft or watching YouTube. Well, not on my watch. I was as serious about their education as they were about their play. Until I played Wordle.
After teaching three classes in a row, I had a period off for prep. Typically, after a quick dash to the bathroom, I would play a game on The New York Times app before diving into grading and lesson planning. My husband and I had a friendly competition, and we shared our scores. I’d never played online games before, but I found Wordle weirdly addicting and played it daily. Though it didn’t take long to play, the game relaxed me and helped me recharge before diving into more work. On the days when I continuously worked, however, I felt fatigued, had low energy, and got a bit testy, as my family liked to point out. All work and no play was, well, no fun … I wondered if it was the same for my students.
The school was competitive and had high expectations. These high standards came with a high amount of testing. In addition to the required number of assessments per marking period, students took a two-day, two-period quarterly assessment, which gave even the most academic of students a headache. These middle-graders were expected to succeed and achieve while navigating school lunch, locker combinations, making friends, and more. Perhaps playing games served as a tool to help destress, to help them cope.
In fact, studies have shown many benefits to playing games: improved reading skills, visual-spatial skills, and hand-eye coordination to name a few. Dr. Mark Griffiths, professor of Gaming Studies at Nottingham Trent University, posits video games promote self-esteem, goal setting, and childhood imaginative play. Griffith argues “the interactive stimulating nature of games allows participants to experience novelty, curiosity, and challenge.” All worthy goals that teachers strive for when creating lessons for students. After years of threatening to throw the Xbox out the window, I had to apologize to my son.
Benefits of gaming extend to adults, too, and apparently, the older population is aware of them because older adults play more games than any other age group. Studies show significant physical, social, and mental health improvements in these 65 and older gamers. This elder population has shown improvements in mental sharpness, social support, and positive feelings. Psychologist Federica Pallavicini at the University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy, argues that “gaming promotes playfulness and adults who demonstrate more playful personality traits are more motivated, creative and spontaneous,” and who doesn’t want that? As for myself, I’ve started playing Quordle and Octordle, too. I discovered when I intensely focus on a game, it puts me in a state of flow, similar to how I feel when I write creatively.
Whether middle-schoolers were playing a video game or a game of catch, they were engaged, excited, and joyful. Life should be full of games and play. It makes learning more fun and everyday tasks feel lighter. This playful mindset leads to joy and rejuvenation and is the well from which happiness and creativity flows. So, when the students asked, “Can we play a game?” I found myself saying yes more and more.