Games make it fun to learn

by Sasha Alyson

If you feel that schools are failing the children you care about… you’re not alone. A great many others believe the standard school model doesn’t work.

And yet, in most countries, the schools aren’t getting better. Strong forces keep schools as they are. But we don’t have to give up. There are things we can do to help children in our lives get a better education.

Here are 4 simple, diverse activities that anyone can do with children in their lives – whether as a parent, grandparent, sibling, friend, teacher, or community member.

The first two teach information and skills that are often learned by rote memorization. But there’s a difference. Math and geography are useful in many pursuits. Rote memorization is a dull way to acquire these basics. These games make it more fun…. for children, and also for adults who get involved.

Warning: This will mean turning off your phone for a while. Not only so you can give your attention to children who need it, but also so they can see that life need not revolve around a phone.

Math: Game 24

You’ll need a deck of cards (it’s ok if some are missing) or just write numbers 0 to 10 on slips of paper. Or use dice.

If using cards: Aces are 1. Queens are 0 (the Q looks like a 0.) Other numbers are what they appear. Remove the kings and jacks. Sorry, fellows, sometimes the men just get in the way.

Deal 4 cards to each person. Before looking at them, one person announces a number from 1 to 30. Now everyone tries to make that number, using all 4 cards. You can add, subtract, multiply, and divide; you can also put two (or even three) cards together, such as combining 3 and 5 to make 35 or 53. You can use two cards to make a number, use the other two cards to make a second number, then combine those two numbers. You must use each card exactly once.

Suppose you get Q 2 4 7, you could make:
6: 2 + 4 + (7 x 0) (remember, the Q is a 0)
7: 7 + (2 x 4 x 0)
8: 40 / (7-2)
9: 7 + (4 / 2) + 0
11: 4 + 7 + (2 x 0)
12: (20 / 4) + 7
13: 40 – 27
14: (4 x 7) / (0 + 2)
15: (2 x 4) + 7 + 0
17: 24 + 0 – 7
18: 72 / 4 + 0
…and so on.

Some numbers have many solutions. Some have none. I can’t make 10, 16, 19 or 20 in the example above. If you can, please post a comment! (Update: 10 and 20 are now solved, see below.)

The first person to solve it, with their 4 cards, lays them down and explains, so others can check, then scores a point. Now, everyone puts their cards face up, so that others can try to solve those hands. You get a point for each one you solve. This means everybody is always thinking; there’s no waiting for others to finish.

Simple variations make the game easier or harder. These can be applied to everyone, or just to players who are more- or less-skilled:

• Use higher numbers as the target. Or lower numbers
• Allow a number to be used as an exponent. So 2, 3 could be 8 (2 to the power of 3) or 9 (3 squared).
• It’s not required to use all your cards.
• Use only addition and subtraction, along with the two variations above.

The name: The number 24 can be made with nearly all hands, so it’s a good number to use for the first few games. Then experiment with others.

Name your neighbors: A map game

You’ll need a map, for the world, or just a large area or continent. It’s more fun, though not necessary, if you have some sort of token (stones, buttons, toothpicks…) to score.

One person is the Picker and names a country. Then, one by one in rotation and without looking at the map, each player must name one country or body of water that touches it. If they’re right, they get a token. If wrong, they lose a token. If they say “I don’t know,” they neither get nor lose anything. When everything has been named, then “That’s all” is the only right answer.

The Picker doesn’t play for this round, but checks answers. The Picker role rotates after each round.


Select several topics that would be of interest to the children. Possibilities:

• 3-year-olds should never be given phones to play with.
• Children should have more say about what they learn in school
• Children under age 16 should not be allowed to use social media
• Schools should divide children by academic ability, not by age
• There should be separate schools for boys and girls.
• School uniforms are good/bad
• 8-year-olds should / should not be allowed to use phones for video games
• Schools should / should not assign homework
• Gambling should be legal.
• Independent (private) schools should be banned.
• Children should not be required to go to school, they should go only if they and their parents think it is worthwhile.
• Children should have sex education, beginning at age 10
• In general, women are better/worse leaders than men.
• Alcohol should be illegal.
• Cigarettes and tobacco should be illegal.
• When rich people break the law, they should pay a higher fine.
• Countries that had colonies should pay them money for the damage they did.
• The government should put a high tax on food that is unhealthy, such as Coke and Pepsi.

Let two children choose a topic from your list.

They debate in turns. First, the child who advocates for a change from the status quo speaks for 2-3 minutes. They should explain why there is a problem that needs to be solved, and how this would be an improvement.

Then the other child replies. They can argue that the status quo is fine and the problem doesn’t exist; and/or that the proposed solution won’t fix it, or would bring too many new problems.

Then audience members may ask questions. They should not make a speech, or offer their opinion; but only ask brief questions of the debaters.

Finally, each child has about a minute to summarize. They should not introduce new ideas or arguments during this period.

Depending on circumstances, you may wish to have a general discussion, with everyone participating, after the debate.

Discussion about education

Gather several children and perhaps 1 to 4 adults. The goal will be to hear the children’s ideas about education. Adults can ask questions, but should not offer their own opinions. It may be helpful to have one person act as moderator.

To get started, it may help to ask some of these questions:

• Who do you do most of the time in school, right now?
• What do you like about that?
• What don’t you like?
• Do you enjoy it?
• Do you have other ideas?
• Tell about a time you learned something important outside of school.

Much will depend on whether the children are accustomed to offering their opinions, and to whether it’s clear that the adults want to hear those opinions.

Putting these games in use

These activities needn’t be limited to children; they are enjoyable, and beneficial, for all ages. For this selection, I deliberately sought a variety. The map game involves learning facts, but in an enjoyable way, and knowing your way around a map means that when you later see or hear the name of a country, the new information will register better in your mind.

The rules given here are deliberately brief. As you play, questions may arise. In the map game, does a river count as a body of water? Can debaters talk as long as they wish, or should somebody time them? Discuss these questions, and decide what rules you want. In standard schooling, the teacher is assumed to know the answers and students are expected to accept those answers. That model works only for those who want to maintain the status quo. Discussing the rules is one way that children and adults develop the habit of asking important questions.

Want more?

Since 2016, I’ve worked with Lao colleagues to open and run several schools in Laos where we try, at an affordable cost, to provide the education that we think will serve children well. In particular, we’ve devoted considerable effort to developing activities that children enjoy, and which also help them learn and develop in many dimensions.

We have more than a hundred varied activities now. Some required special skills or equipment; most do not. If you’d like to read about more, please comment here. I’m happy to expand this, but only if it’s being used.


For Game 24: @MyPetWorm sent in a solution for 10: (2 x 7) – 4 + 0. And after posting this, I found a solution for 20: (7-2) x 4 + 0. They both seem obvious after you see them. That’s what makes the game interesting. 16 and 19 remain unsolved, at this writing. It’s possible they have no solution..

Top illustration

At our school, we’ve modified Game 24 for younger children. They roll 2 dice. They can select one, or both, or add or subtract them, trying to make the number that was announced. We drew a long snake on a board, and divided it into 20 sections. Each time they get a right answer, they move their token ahead one.

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