kids learning while playing

How online games help children learn

Researchers have been studying how children learn through games for a long time. Learning about this history can help understand how learning takes place through all types of play and how games can be created with instruction in mind.

A history of Games for Learning

The subject of learning through play predates formal games intentionally designed for teaching, and certainly predates computer games for learning. The definition of games and even play was very different when researchers started studying this topic, and some of the early research focused on imaginative games. They found that imaginative play is important because “we use games to mimic activities and roles for which we need to prepare”. This can include students mimicking family life by playing house, imagining what it might be like to hold a certain profession, or trying different ways to resolve conflict through war games. Additionally, playground games teach valuable skills such as motor skills, problem solving and strategy. Technology has expanded the possibilities for play, but the same basic principles are at work. Let’s consider a few types of online games.

Repetition and Practice Games

Repetition games are the most straightforward example of learning games. Whether your spelling words to progress in the game’s story or answering math problems to earn points, these games clearly replicate study activities needed for students to be successful. It is unlikely that these players are interested in mimicking study activities but rather, they are motivated by the familiar acts of moving through a story or earning rewards (in this case, points). By mixing these familiar acts with the study tools, game designers are helping students capitalize on the motivation we know game players feel to help them learn.

Puzzle Games
In a way similar to repetition games, puzzle games allow students to build problem solving and strategy skills with the familiar act of solving puzzles. This might include crossword puzzles with vocabulary or spelling words or number games to work on math fluency. Another example is computer games where students solve jigsaw puzzles through completing tasks to earn puzzle pieces. These add complexity to simple repetition games where students use academic content to accomplish other goals.


After looking at a few examples of different types of games it is easier to see how online games help students build their skills. Whether they are mimicking life events they see adults living or learning through engaging story-lines, online games can be a powerful tool to help students learn.