Games: Soothing the Amygdala

“Games give you a chance to excel, and if you’re playing in good company you don’t even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game.”
― Gary Gygax

Sometimes I feel really sorry for my students.  These poor kiddos are struggling in school, or their parents wouldn’t bring them to me.  Whether they have a learning disability or ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder, they come home from school intellectually and emotionally spent.  Whew!  Survived another day.  Then their parent tells them to get in the car so they can go…back to learn all the stuff that is so hard for them during the day.  Uh…what?  No wonder some of them come in glassy-eyed, or at the least anxiously looking around to assess how school-like my office seems.

I always reassure them that for the most part, I love using games to teach, so they aren’t just doing more worksheets after a day of worksheets.  They always let out a relieved, although somewhat skeptical, breath.  Ok, maybe this won’t be too bad.

The Amygdala: Gateway of the Brain

The Amygdala: Gateway of the Brain

In fact, there are very good, brain-based reasons to teach using games.  A little part of the brain called the amygdala is in charge of deciding whether incoming information gets thrown forward, to the pre-frontal cortex, where humans think and problem solve, or gets thrown backwards, to the lizard brain where there are only three choices: fight, flight or freeze.

Now, the amygdala allowed us humans to survive many a saber-tooth tiger attack.  The problem is, your amygdala can’t really tell the difference between fear based on a saber-toothed tiger and fear based on long division or a difficult reading passage.  If your brain is yelling, “Fight!  No, Run!” you’re not going to be attending to the steps of a math problem or what a silent e does to a vowel.

So, how do you sooth the amygdala so it directs your math or reading lesson to the front brain where your student can think about it and learn?  Get them relaxed, laughing, and having fun.  In other words: play a game!

But I don’t have time to make games, I hear you say.

Teacher versus Student

Teacher versus Student

Well, today, I’m going to share with you the easiest, most last minute, no-preparation, no-fuss game ever.  Ready?  It’s called “Teacher versus Student(s).”  You can play this with a whole class or one-on-one.  You write Teacher on one side of a line and Student on the other.  Then you ask whatever review questions you want, and if they get it right, they get the point; if they don’t, you get the point.  And you get a point if they yell out (or any other behavior you want to discourage–one of my students lost a point each time he rolled his eyes and complained that he couldn’t do something).  That’s it.

I really have no idea why Teacher versus Student is so engaging, but it works miracles.  In a whole class, kids are allowed to call for a life-line (ask for help from other kids).  One-on-one, I do prompt my kiddo if necessary.  And of course, prefacing your question with, “Ok.  Now I’m going to ask a really hard question I know you’ll never get and I’ll finally get a point,” and responding to the correct answer with a shocked, “What?!  How did you know that?” not only elicits giggles and smiles, but also a good deal of meta-cognition on the sly.  Strangely, I have never won a game of Teacher v. Student.  Come to think of it, that may be one reason it is so engaging for the kids!

Next time, I’ll go over board games for phonics and for math.  For now, I’ll finish with a quotation I just heard from Dr. Edward Hallowell, speaking at the Learning & the Brain conference in San Francisco this year: “If you are having fun with your children, you’re doing it right.”

5 thoughts on “Games: Soothing the Amygdala

  1. Workneh Endazenaw Woldehana

    I totally agree with everything you said dear Diana.
    The time we spend in the school both as a teacher and especially kids as students are part and in fact the most important part of our and their life respectively. Brain researches show that our brain accepts new knowledge, understanding, experience and new learning when we are positively stimulated. Game is one of those tools that stimulate not only kids but adults as well, and in fact again not only human beings but also other animals as well. If you see African lion or our domestic cats at home they learn and develop their inborn hunting instinct through games. They play hunting, hiding, seeking, catching, jumping over the prey, etc to hide and catch the one they hunt; it could be a butterfly or a role of tread via games. This way they learn while having fun. That is what we humans are lacking from our school in teaching our students. We need to bring it back to the class or take our class outside. This is very crucial to main stream students as well students with learning disabilities.

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