How gamification can help your child to learn

Marcus Goh
Yahoo Illustration

By Marcus Goh and Adrian Kuek

Grade Expectations is a weekly feature on education in Singapore. Expect fun activities, useful tips and insightful news on learning. It’s not just about your child’s grades — it’s about raising a great child!

We’ve talked about how to help your kids love learning, but what about changing the learning process altogether to make it more like the fun activities that your child loves doing, like playing games? That’s what the gamification of learning seeks to achieve.

Gamification is defined as the insertion of game elements, such as a points system, competition with other players and codified rules and boundaries for scoring points. In a way, our education system already bears many elements of gamification, with marks (points), rankings (competition with other players) and a set of rules (exam formats and syllabuses). However, the consequences of failure in the “game” of education are far too severe to allow it to be fun and lighthearted, just like in real games.

The objectives of gamification

What then, is the point of gamification? Games are engrossing and sometimes addictive because they promote a state of flow, which is when a person is completely immersed in a feeling of energised focus and enjoyment while doing an activity. To put it plainly, the person is busy having fun.

The benefits of making learning fun are numerous. For a start, if learning is a pleasurable activity, kids will naturally take the initiative to learn. Gamification also creates additional motivation, since there are now two rewards for learning — the actual satisfaction itself and the accrual of points which translates into tangible progress.

Gamification also adds a social element to learning, since the competitive element means that you  learn how to interact with other players. It teaches children how to be a good sport when they lose and how to be gracious when they win.

Gamification doesn’t have to be complex

You don’t need advanced technology like an Oculus Rift or a Playstation 4 in order to gamify learning. All you need to do is to add game elements to learning. This means adding a rewards system (points work best) and rules within which your child can compete, like a time limit. No purchase necessary — what’s required is a mindset change.

You can find inspiration in the simplest games, like catching or scissors-paper-stone. More ambitious parents can draw up an entire system of tasks and rewards and allow their children to save up points for bigger and better benefits.

Ways to gamify learning

Here are some techniques to gamify learning for your child, ranging from easy tasks to more elaborate setups. Pick the ones that you’re most comfortable with and watch learning turn into a game for your child (with the potential for positive addiction that comes with it!).

1. Add a points system for learning

Assign a point value to each learning task your child has to do, like completing homework, learning word spelling or reading a textbook chapter. The more difficult or time consuming the task, the more points your child should earn.

Next, assign a point value to activities that your child likes, like watching television, playing with a mobile device or even playing with toys.

Now, every time your children finish a learning task, they earn points that they can spend on doing something they like. It’s a better system than saying “you can only play with your tablet after you have finished your homework”, because it gives your children the flexibility to choose what they want to do and gives them the opportunity to measure their progress (points).

2. Use a homemade board to keep track of progress

If points are too abstract for your child (especially younger ones), create a chart or board. Draw a path from the starting point to the finish line, divide it into segments and let your children see the progress when they complete a task. Think of it as a giant rewards card for your child.

When they reach the end of the path, they get to choose a reward. To provide them with a greater sense of progression, add mini-rewards along the path, so they don’t have to wait too long before being rewarded for their actions.

If you have more than one child, consider letting them share the same board. This should instill a sense of competition, which will increase their motivation to learn. Just make sure the game stays fair.

3. Set a time limit

Setting a time limit for tasks is a great way to add challenge to learning. Super Mario had time limits for each level, which created a sense of urgency for players. However, be sure to check that your child has completed the learning task properly and not just rushed through it to meet the time limit.

4. Give titles and awards

If points are too troublesome, take a leaf from how modern games have an “achievement unlocked” setting. Every time your child hits a milestone, create some sort of banner or badge that states “Achievement unlocked: Got full marks for spelling”. Not only does it add an element of fun, but it’s also in line with how modern games reward players for tasks.

How else would you gamify learning for your child?

Marcus Goh runs Write-Handed, a creative writing studio. At the same time, he teaches English at The Write Connection. He has been a specialist tutor for English and Literature (Secondary) since 2005.

Adrian Kuek runs Joyous Learning, an enrichment centre that specialises in English, Mathematics, Science and Creative Writing for Primary. He previously served as the academic director of one of Singapore’s largest enrichment centre chains for over seven years.