The surprising cognitive benefits of games

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What I Wish Parents Knew is a series on issues parents should know, from a private tutors perspective.

I was working with Jessie at the local library the other day when the subject of games came up. She told me that card games such as Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon had been banned at her school. Her father, who usually just hangs out during Jessie’s tutoring session, overheard us and said: “That’s good. Kids shouldn’t be playing games at school, they should be learning.” Jessie, an avid player of games, rolled her eyes.

Sadly, what Jessie’s father didn’t realise is that the games were most likely banned for other reasons. Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon are both card games that are played with collectible cards, some of which are very rare and actually have a monetary value in real life. Those who play those games also enjoy collecting and trading the rare cards, which could cause a certain negative dynamic in schools as younger children tend to get bullied or pressured into unfavourable trades by bigger or older kids. The games were not banned because they are not educational.

In fact, games can be a really excellent way of learning. Good games – those that reward strategic thinking, perseverance, logic and more – can actually help children learn the very skills that they need to succeed both in school and in life.

For example, Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon touch on math skills (to calculate damage done after combat), strategy (how to maximise damage dealt, how to plan an attack) and tactics (when to attack, when to defend). Other games, such as trading board games like Settlers of Catan, require children to learn how to negotiate, socialise and more. Then there are cooperative games which teach children the value of team work and consensus building – even Risk, a classic war game, requires some cooperation amid all the battle strategy.

To have such a rigid concept of learning that excludes anything that looks like fun because it may distract from the act of learning itself is tragically narrow-minded in my view. Learning doesn’t just happen seated at a desk, with a textbook in front of you and a teacher at a chalkboard, droning on about abstract ideas.

Learning can happen anytime, anywhere – the sooner parents realise this, the sooner they can become better supporters and facilitators of their child’s learning journey. Games might not resonate with every kid, but for those who need an extra push to get into a topic or subject they struggle with, they could be the key to unlocking the next level of achievement and learning.

As a tutor, I play a lot of games with my students. After a solid hour of learning, it is great to switch things up a little to keep my students interested and engaged. I choose games that seek to reinforce the lessons we are working on – for example, my younger maths students love playing dice wars with me during their break.

To go back to Jessie’s situation, it’s sad that her dad didn’t realise how much games could help. Not only did playing Magic: The Gathering teach Jessie strategy, tactics and more, it also genuinely helped to improve her reading (which was why I was tutoring her). Card games can be very text heavy, and reading all the text on the cards really gave Jessie the practice she needed with unfamiliar words. Not only was Jessie’s dad missing out on a whole new way of learning, he was also missing out on a great way to bond and socialise with his preteen kid during those valuable moments after school. And that is really too bad!


Troy Therrien is a tutor who believes that learning can be, and should be, for everyone. Find out more about him and his tutoring business at

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