Educational Games: A historical perspective

Being on a team that is starting an educational gaming company, I couldn’t help but think how we might be shaping the direction of education. Could we be a part of a rising trend where we focus on fun and play for education?

Well, there is one little catch in that idea. We are about 400 years too late. I will repeat to ensure you that this is not a typo: We are 400 years too late. How do I know this? I am a time traveler. No, I wish. In reality, I did time travel in the form of working for a historic site called Colonial Williamsburg. While I was working there, I was on a team that interpreted life in the middle class which included daily life, their slaves, and, most importantly, their education.

Education was my favorite part to interpret because in the Colonial period they used games. Everything was a game. Why? Because games are fun! Education was different back then because once they hit 14, men would turn to their trade and women would turn to their mothers to learn how to run a household. Before that age, the children needed to learn how to read, write, perform basic math, and, depending on the period, know all the British Monarchs in order.

They used games to teach and learn, and many of those games (or variants of them) are still played today. HotchPotch is a doll that twists its body to shape the letters of the Alphabet. Once children mastered the doll, it was time to write the letters. Children would be provided a doll and flashcards. Letter Dice was the Colonist’s version of Boggle: nine letters, infinite amount of possibilities. Finally, my favorite: Shut the Box. It still exists today in the same format it was back then. The game is a wooden box with a line of numbered toggles. The goal is to get as many of the toggles turned down as you can. You roll the dice and add them, then come up with an equation that will let you turn down as many of the toggles as possible. For example, let’s say you roll a seven and a three. That’s ten. You could turn down toggles 8 and 2, or 6 and 4, or even 2, 5, and 3.

Did you know slaves had their own set of games? They did not need fancy tabletop games. They just wanted to learn and found ways to make it happen. Despite what many people may think, they did manage a basic education, and they had their own set of games to help them with that.

I will end this by saying a classic quote that several live by: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it! Apparently, we are doing something right by making education fun and “playing education” so I encourage you to never fully grow up.


Lindsay Brennan Alukonis is a native to Northern Virginia who is passionate about creativity and curiosity in education. She has a masters degree in Museum Studies which has taken her on a unique career path teaching in informal learning environments such as parks, museums, and after-school enrichment. Here, she has been able to find and harness her curiosity and creativity because there is freedom in her teaching. She is currently the Chief Operating Officer for Catlilli Games where she is on a team of creative individuals making educational games for children.

  2 comments for “Educational Games: A historical perspective

  1. Sue
    July 9, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Please elaborate with specifics- Did you know slaves had their own set of games? They did not need fancy tabletop games. They just wanted to learn and found ways to make it happen. Despite what many people may think, they did manage a basic education, and they had their own set of games to help them with that.

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