As humans, do we consciously seek out games? (And I’m not talking about mind games, but games that are fun for all parties. Like hide-and-seek.) Or are we just wired to pursue them?

When I was in first or second grade, every day during recess, my friends and I would play this game where one of us was “Queen,” and the rest of us would play out other roles (subordinate roles) in the Kingdom, always making sure our Queen was content. 

(To make it fair, we alternated who sat in the coveted Queen role.)

Did you know that the first ever kindergarten was built on the belief that play is an integral part of children’s learning and development? That’s right! In 1837, Friedrich Froebel designed a kindergarten in which the days began with songs and included playtime, stories, and dramatic play

Why do games appeal to us?

It seems that when we’re children, we’re drawn to games. And then, once we’re grown up (whatever that really means!), we still want to play games (at least in my own experience). 

The only difference is that we have less time to play, since, you know, we have to do all those important things. Like earning a living. 

There’s got to be a reason why adults increasingly engage in playful activities in their free time like escape rooms, pick-up volleyball, and party games. 

Why do we like playing games? Is it simply that they bring us certain forms of stimulation or excitement that the real world can’t? The truth of the matter is, sometimes we all experience that feeling that people tell us we shouldn’t feel if we lead interesting enough lives: boredom. 

The benefits of playing games for students

My gut says that, like most other things, playing games is fine — or even beneficial — in moderation. Considering how we seem to be innately drawn to games, perhaps playing games has actual, concrete benefits. And particularly, for developing students. 

Let’s see what the research has to say.  

Playing games reduces stress

Do you sometimes just want a distraction to get your mind off an impending appointment you’ve been dreading, like going to the dentist to get your wisdom teeth removed, where you’ll walk away feeling like a busted up chipmunk? Yes, you do — you’re human!

The simple truth is that we all, from time to time, need something that draws our attention away from a particular looming task, deadline, or event. And games can be a potential solution.

When we play games, one thing that happens is that we spend time laughing. And laughing, as research shows, causes a decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone), and an endorphin release (the happy hormone). Consequently, our stress decreases, and our mood improves. 

Students, just like the rest of us, need this from time to time. With all the challenging assignments, confusing friend drama, and stressful sporting events that come their way, students most definitely can use game playing to their advantage.

Indulging in fun games, then, can be like medicine for students. It can improve their spirit, decrease their stress, and ultimately, allow them to perform better when returning to the classroom.

Playing games improves cognitive function

We’ve got great news for everyone who finds themselves yearning to take a break from their work to do a New York Times puzzle. 

Despite the common notion that games are solely leisure activities, games can actually help improve cognitive function and even fend off cognitive decline. 

The thing is, so many games are incredibly cognitively stimulating — think: Sudoku, crossword puzzles, Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect 4, Scrabble, chess, etc. 

When we continually engage in these activities, we use a lot of our brain power, consequently strengthening our brain muscles and keeping the engine running. 

Research has, in fact, shown that mentally stimulating activities, like board games, can help impede cognitive decline and reduce the risk of developing age-related cognitive conditions.

Even more, research has found that when it comes to education, playing games can be a meaningful tool. For instance, a 2011 study found that playfulness is associated with better academic performance.

Additionally, play, research finds, can prompt the brain to release dopamine, which is related to memory and attention. 

This tells us something important. 

Despite the common notion that you need to be entirely regimented to succeed in school, research suggests that students who are playful actually have better academic outcomes. 

Playing games helps children regulate their emotions

What’s the deal with children crying? As adults, we may forget that there was a time when we couldn’t stop ourselves from breaking down and sobbing in a public setting. (Okay, let’s be honest, that still happens sometimes!)

But over time, we learn how to regulate our emotions. Think about it: if we didn’t, plane rides wouldn’t consist of just one baby crying, but of everyone crying! 

Lots of children learn how to regulate their emotions through trial and error and by watching others. They learn from their interactions and from continuously noticing how they feel and what helps them feel better. 

For some children, though, it’s a little more complicated. That is, they may need extra support from the help of therapists, counselors, or programs. 

But there’s something else that parents and teachers can use as a secret weapon to try and support children in their self-regulation journeys: games. 

University of Denver researchers found that, indeed, while children play, they teach themselves to regulate their to implement in the classroom

This may be due to the fact that playing games can lead to a release of oxytocin, which helps mediate emotional regulation and also plays a role in the development of social skills.

Playing games requires communicating and engaging with peers

Often, shy students have trouble communicating with their peers. They may not know how to open a conversation or keep one going.

For students who struggle with socializing, games can be particularly beneficial. When we provide students with a conduit through which they can engage with their peers, we empower them to strengthen their social bonds and skills. 

Games, then, provide these students with a buffer, if you will. That is, games take some of the social pressure off of students; they don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. Instead, they can communicate around the game, discussing strategy, rules, and the results.  

It also requires following rules and practicing patience

Playing games can also help students develop other major skills that they’ll need to succeed later on in life. 

Learning to be patient and follow a certain set of rules can be tricky for some children. But games can help drill in these behaviors — and in a fun way! In an ideal world, perhaps we’d like to sit children down, give them a lecture on the importance of following the rules, and see immediate results.

But let’s be real. With kids, this type of lecture seems to go in one ear and out the other. So games can be incredibly useful for helping children develop these critical skills in a more engaging and interesting way. 

Playing games can help boost children’s moods

I remember in my Spanish class in elementary school, to review material, we’d play a game where my teacher asked questions and then would throw a ball to a student who raised their hand. If the student caught the ball, they got to try to answer. 

This is just one example, but engaging in games that include some sort of physical activity can majorly improve students’ moods. And this is due to the way in which exercise prompts the brain to release certain chemicals and increases blood circulation to the brain.

And when students reap these benefits, they’re more likely to have better concentration, engagement, and thus outcomes in the classroom. 

Final thoughts 

Did you know that Finland consistently ranks as one of the top educational systems in the world? In Finland, elementary students have long, frequent recesses. But additionally, they have more time to play inside the classroom. According to Finnish law, teachers are required to give students a fifteen-minute break for every forty-five minutes of class instruction, according to Business Insider

Is it just a happy coincidence that one of the top educational systems allows for more play time? Or should we be taking a page out of Finland’s book?

According to a report by Outdoor Classroom Day, in the US, in more than 70% of schools, children only have 0-10% of the school day to play.

So maybe it’s time to look not at what we’re doing, but what we may not be doing — namely, providing children with enough opportunities to learn through play.