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A Guide to Game-Based Learning in Early Childhood Education

Motivate children to learn in the classroom through game-based learning.

A Guide to Game-Based Learning in Early Childhood Education

A Guide to Game-Based Learning in Early Childhood Education

Over the years, educators have had to supplement traditional learning with other models to meet each child’s specific learning needs. Among other models that cater to varied learning needs is game-based learning. This learning model involves using games in a lesson and can improve learning engagement and motivation.

Currently, game-based learning is mainly digital, with children playing video games. However, the model also involves playing traditional games, especially for younger children who aren’t able to handle devices yet. All these methods help children develop essential life skills like critical thinking and social-emotional skills. 

This article explains game-based learning, how it differs from gamification, its benefits, and how you can use it in the classroom. 

What is game-based learning?

Game-based learning is a methodology that helps children acquire knowledge through playing games. With game-based learning, children can learn individually and as a team by using online games and physical objects. This learning approach is competitive, fun, and engaging, and it improves learning outcomes.

In preschool, game-based learning can involve teachers placing children on separate teams and having them compete while following rules and expectations. For example, a teacher might split the class into two groups and have each team identify numbers one to 10. Each number they identify gets them a point, and the team with more points wins.  

It’s essential to know the difference between game-based learning and gamification. Educators often confuse or interchange these terms. While game-based learning is competitive, gamification is not. Gamification is the application of game design elements in a traditional educational setting to make learning more engaging. Although it’s not competitive, children can earn awards. For example, whenever a child achieves a goal, like identifying specific colors, shapes, or numbers, they get a badge.

Here are a few other differences between the two learning models:

  • Game-based learning uses actual games to teach, while gamification adds game elements to the content.
  • Game-based learning has objectives and follows rules, while gamification is generally a series of tasks.
  • Game-based learning can be more time-consuming and expensive than gamification, as  game platforms may need to be created for game-based learning.
  • Game-based learning presents the chance to lose in a game, but gamification typically does not.

These differences should guide your approach to applying game-based learning in the classroom.

Benefits of game-based learning

Game-based learning is not just fun and games. It’s an essential part of children’s education, with immense benefits. Here are a few:

Encourages critical thinking and problem solving

Many games require children to think about their next steps and ask questions, which helps them to develop reasoning skills and the ability to think quickly and innovatively.

Develops social-emotional skills

Games of a collaborative nature allow for social skills development. As children continue engaging in various games, they develop self-control and self-awareness, which are crucial elements of social-emotional learning.

Improves memory capacity

Games typically revolve around memorization. They require children to remember critical sequences to solve the game. Repeatedly playing these games strengthens their memorization skills.   

Provides a safe environment for failure 

Many children may find it embarrassing to fail in front of others. Online games allow children to keep trying until they gain mastery, which is a practice they can apply in the real world.

Offers flexibility

Revising formal educational content can sometimes be time-consuming. However, game-based learning is more flexible and adaptable. As a result, educators can update the content quickly, making it effective and efficient  in the classroom.

Improves motivation and engagement

Digital games designed with choice, collaboration, and feedback keep children engaged during the lessons and motivated to reach an end goal. 

Supports different learning styles

All children learn in different ways, and introducing various learning approaches can benefit those different learning styles. While some children learn best from traditional instruction, others may be more engaged when playing games as part of their classwork. 

Builds digital literacy

With the increasing use of technology, it is important for children to learn about and use computers and digital devices early. Playing digital games is one way to enhance children’s technological skills, preparing them for more advanced digital use in the future.

Game-based learning examples

Before deciding what games to use in your classroom, determine your end goals so you can find the right ones. If it’s a digital game, play the game before introducing it to your children to ensure that it’s in line with your goals. Ultimately, you want to use games that work best for all your children.

Here are a few examples of how to use game-based learning in the classroom:

Through common games

Play is one of the key ways children learn, as they are inherently motivated to play and explore. Here are some common games that help children learn:

Red light, green light

This game teaches critical thinking skills as well as patience. For this game, one child is the leader, who stands a few feet in front of the other children. When the leader turns away from the others, that’s a green light, meaning the other children are free to move toward the leader to try to touch them. When the leader turns toward the children, that’s a red light, meaning the children should not be moving. Anyone the leader catches moving goes back to the starting line. The object of the game is to be the first player to get to the leader.

Hide and seek

This classic game helps children develop problem-solving skills. For example, to stay hidden for as long as possible, the children need to assess their options to discover the best hiding spot, which also helps with spatial awareness. As they continue to play the game over time, they’ll be able to determine which hiding spots are commonly checked first and avoid them.  

Musical chairs

This fun game helps with teaching children to practice patience and manage conflict and disappointment. Place chairs in a circle facing outwards. Play music and have the children dance freely as they move in a circle around the chairs. When the music stops, have the children find a chair and sit as quickly as possible. This game is usually played with one less chair than players, removing one chair per round as children get eliminated until there is a winner or winners.

Simon Says

Simon Says is a great game for developing listening skills. To play, one child says, “Simon says…,” filling in the blank with silly actions like “bark like a dog” or “jump like a monkey” for the others to do. The key is that the leader must say “Simon says” when requesting the action. If a request is given without saying “Simon says,” the action should not be done. If children do the action, they are out of the game.


Another popular classic game, hopscotch helps develop critical thinking skills. After drawing the hopscotch grid, the children take turns throwing an item, like a stone or marker, onto the grid. Then they must hop through the squares, avoiding the square where  the object landed. Alternatively, children can play shape hopscotch, where instead of drawing the traditional grid,  they can draw different shapes (as a grid) on the ground. This gives the children the opportunity to name the shapes too.

Through video games

With technology becoming increasingly more available, children have more access to a greater variety of educational games they can play online. Some educational video games for preschoolers include:

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

This Nintendo game is suitable for children three years old and older. It’s a simulated, gentle (no violence) game that encourages creativity and responsibility. The player moves to a deserted island to develop it and create a home by foraging and collecting natural resources. The player also gets points for each item placed on the island. This game is accessible via Nintendo Switch.

Little Red Coding Club

This Twinkl interactive multiplayer game teaches children four years old and older the principles of coding in an engaging way. Children help Little Red Riding Hood walk through a 3D forest to Grandma's house while trying to avoid the big, bad wolf. This game is available through the Little Red Coding Club App via the Apple App Store.

Through original games

Don’t let available options stop you from being creative. If inspiration strikes, create original, interactive games that suit the learning needs of the children in your class. They can be individual- or team-based physical games, or you can use available software to customize digital ones.

Not just fun and games

When implementing game-based learning in your classroom, start small, especially with digital games. Decide on the right format and frequency that works best for your classroom. Games can be a great way to engage and motivate your children and enhance your lessons, by exposing children to relevant content that ties back to your learning objectives.

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