Board Games That Promote Critical Thinking

Board games for kids:

Can they teach critical thinking?

© 2009-2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The benefits of board games for kids? Some are obvious. Kids enjoy playing them, and board games are opportunities for families to play together.

In addition, social scientists have argued that games teach lessons about getting along with others (Kamii and DeVries 1980; Zan and Hildebrandt 2005).

For example, games may encourage kids to
  • consider the concept of rules
  • practice following rules
  • reason about moral problems

When kids play with older role models they can learn something else, too: How to win—and lose—with grace and good manners (Gobet et al 2004).

Then there are the possible intellectual benefits.

Many board game--including the classics, like chess, go, and various mancala games --encourage players to

  • detect patterns
  • plan ahead
  • predict the outcome of alternative moves
  • learn from experience

But are gaming skills relevant in the real world? It depends.

Research about board games for kids

Some board games reward logical reasoning.

For example, the game of Clue (see below) can be used as a tool to teach deductive logic (Neller et al 2006).

And the game Mastermind has been used to test the aptitude of college students for computer programming (Lorenzen and Chang 2006).

However, we can’t assume that playing board games will make kids better students.

Studies suggest that good chess players are better at recognizing and remembering certain configurations of chess pieces. But chess experts aren’t necessarily any better at recognizing patterns in other contexts (Gobet and Campitelli 2006). And while chess players tend to be more intelligent than non-chess players, the correlation may reflect self-selection: Smarter people may be more likely to play chess (Gobet and Campitelli 2006).

What we need are rigorous experiments. We need kids to be randomly assigned to treatment or control groups. We need students and teachers to be kept ignorant of the purpose of the experiment. And we need to test students before and after the intervention.

As noted by Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli, very few studies of chess meet these standards. And the situation for board games in general isn't much better. But here are some exceptions:

Chess. In one study of kids with learning disabilities, researchers assigned students to receive either 5 hours of math instruction each week OR 4 hours of math and 1 hour of chess instruction each week. The kids were tested at the beginning of the school year and again at the end. The students who’d received chess lessons showed more improvement in basic math skills like counting and addition (Scholtz et al 2008).

Number-line board games for kids. In two independent experiments, some preschoolers were assigned to play “number line" board games—-i.e., games in which players move game pieces through a series of sequentially-numbered spaces. Before and after the intervention, the kids were given several math tasks. Whereas kids in control groups experienced no improvement, the kids who had played numerical board games had developed superior math skills.

Mastermind. Studies using the game Mastermind, have yielded mixed results. When college students were assigned to play the game, they experienced improvements in their critical thinking skills, making fewer errors of reasoning (Wood and Stewart 1987). But a study of 7th and 8th graders failed to find any similar effects (Bright et al 1983).

So it seems that -- at least sometimes -- board game skills have translated into academic skills.

Why aren’t the effects more obvious and consistent?

It could be that there are no effects -- that the reported links between board game practice and real-life skills reflect statistical flukes.

But given that a successful game player must learn to control her impulses, follow the rules, and reflect, it makes sense that gaming experience might translate into better performance on academic tasks that require focus and self-control.

It also makes sense that games designed to give kids practice in specific subject areas -- like number sense -- would foster transferable skills.

Perhaps, then, the problem is that merely playing a game isn't enough. Intellectual breakthroughs are required.

For instance, some kids need to realize that they can improve their performance with practice.

When people think of problem-solving ability as a talent or a gift, they take fewer chances and don't learn as well from their own mistakes.

By adopting a different view--i.e., that problem solving is something we learn--kids may better develop their analytical abilities.

Maybe, too, kids need coaching about metacognition. They need to become conscious of their own tactics and consider about why they work (or fail to work).

Many players may fail to make these breakthroughs on their own. Perhaps, then, kids will reap the most cognitive benefits when board games are part of general program for teaching math, logic, and critical thinking skills.

Board games + metacognition = better critical thinking?

By all means, let kids play board games because they are fun. But--at least once in a while--adults can give kids something to think about, too.

Research strongly suggests that kids become better learners when they believe that intelligence is malleable.

And studies show that kids learn more when they attempt to explain their reasoning processes.

So we might make board games a more powerful learning tool if we teach kids that problem-solving ability is like a muscle: It can be strengthened with practice and learning.

And kids might make more improvements if we encourage them to explain their tactics or the tactics they see others use.

Kids don't explain themselves unless they are prodded

When researcher David Reid watched 2nd graders play Mastermind and Connect Four in the classroom, he noticed that kids never asked each other to explain their reasoning--even when they were teammates making suggestions to each other.

The teacher played a crucial role. She was the only person asking players to explain their choices(Reid 2002).

Kids benefit from lessons in critical thinking

As kids get older, we might also use board games as part of program of teaching critical thinking skills.


We know that middle school students can make substantial improvements in problem-solving ability--even general IQ--when they are taught general principles of critical thinking (Hernnstein et al 1986).

If board games are used in conjunction with lessons on hypothesis testing, basic logic, and other topics, they may offer kids important ways to practice their general reasoning skills.

Board games for kids: Which ones to play?

So it seems to me that board games really are worth playing. Which ones? I’ve already mentioned several good bets: Chess, mancala, Mastermind, and Clue (also called “Cluedo").

All of these games are pure strategy. No luck involved--not if you play them right.

Teaching gifted students over the years gave me the opportunity to discover the best strategy board games for kids. If the game held their interest, challenged them, and helped develop critical thinking, then it was a winner. It became apparent over the years which were the perennial favorites as students were quick to call “dibs” on certain games.

Overall, these were the best strategy board games and favorites with my students:

Othello: This game is great for new students because it really is a “minute to learn, a lifetime to master”. On each turn, players flank the discs of the opposing player between two of their own. Once captured, the double-sided discs are flipped over and become the opposite color. Our students came up with quick and interesting strategies.

Abalone:Our boy students especially loved to play this game of strategy. This game is very popular in many countries and is easy to learn. Pushing the large marbles is fun, especially when you push your opponent’s marble right off the board! This is a game where it is worth taking the time to make sure children understand the rules. Such as: Two marbles can push one marble and three marbles can push one or two of your opponent’s marbles. However, an equal number of marbles cannot push each other. This can be difficult for younger students to remember, so I made a little reminder card to refer to during play.

Ravensburger Labyrinth:  Labyrinth has been around since the late 80’s and is another favorite of our gifted students. This game of mazes requires planning and the ability to think ahead. Although an older game, the theme of fantasy is current for today’s youth as it features a cast of mythical characters including a dragon, a princess, a ghost, a genie, and flying creatures like bats and owls. This is an action-packed game of mystery.

Quarto :  As educators we liked this game for teaching deductive reasoning. Playing pieces have several attributes (color, shape, size, etc) which must be considered in play and this makes the game fun and challenging. The most popular game that uses deductive reasoning is,  Set: The Family Game of Visual Perception, I chose not to list this as a top choice, only because most families already own this card game. However, if you don’t, it is a must have!      

Blokus:  The biggest arguments my students had over this game came from disagreements on how to pronounce the name (It’s Block-us). This game is very easy to learn as it really only has one rule–your piece must touch at least one corner of one of your other pieces on the board. This game has several fun variations. It promotes creative thinking, strategy, and is great for encouraging spatial thinking.

No Stress Chess: While chess is a not favorite with all students, those who take to it are passionate about the game. Chess is the most intellectual board game, so why not give children a positive start at developing love for the game with a “no stress” option?

Strategy games can help develop the brain in several ways. These games are great for helping to develop logical thinking. Anyone who has ever tried to deal with the illogical child knows this is a skill worth developing.  Strategy games can also promote our ability to learn from past mistakes. Learning to think a few steps ahead is extremely important in social contexts, especially as children grow into their teens. Of course kids play these games because they’re fun and as teachers we enjoyed playing these games too!

Please take the time to comment on your favorite strategy games below.

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