Learn from homeschooling mums Tan Wan Ling, Elaine Cheah and Ly-Ann Tan how use gameschooling to teach your own.

Maryam Kiyani from the Editor’s Desk:

Children are given many games to play as they grow up. Many of us played board and card games as children. I have many pleasant memories of family nights spent playing Monopoly, Clue and SNAP. Many games promise educational benefits to those who play them. Today, we take a closer look at true learning through games. Three homeschooling mothers speak about their methods of teaching through games and how they have positively affected their children. 

Tan Wan Ling is a mother to two free-spirited and loving girls. She was previously a Humanities teacher and is an eclectic homeschooler who employs a myriad of resources to teach her own. At the heart of her homeschooling journey is the desire to form a deep, lasting and meaningful connection with her family so that they can be equipped to share God’s love. One homeschooling approach that resonates most with her family is gameschooling. 

Elaine Cheah is a mother of four children between the ages of 1 and 11 years. She used to work in the IT and Finance industries and was also a freelance editor & copywriter. She now owns and runs Lefko Games, a board games business present in both Malaysia and Singapore. Elaine believes that education occurs every moment in life, be it in academic, character, values or belief systems. She does not pretend that it is easy to  parent or homeschool but perseveres in her convictions and enjoyment of her children.

Ly-Ann Tan is a teacher turned homeschooling mom, educator, YouTuber and vacation school game-school jams coordinator. She has taught children of all ages for almost 20 years in Australia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong and leans toward using tabletop games to inspire kids to own what they learn. Her family plays games every night, so their games tend to run light to medium weight in the party and family genre. Lynn loves finding regular games that can have surprising educational benefits.


By Tan Wan Ling, Elaine Cheah and Ly-Ann Tan

Q1. What is gameschooling to you?

Tan Wan Ling:

Gameschooling, like homeschooling, is a family lifestyle to me. I recently noticed how ingrained  gameschooling is in our pursuit of education. Just the other day, my daughter clarified a Chinese character with me by asking, “Is it the 五 (five) in MahJong?” It amuses me how we only need the dictionary when we play Scrabble. 

I think of us as part-time unschoolers. To be honest, we are not brave enough to dive into full-time unschooling. Gameschooling is a huge part of our part-time unschooling lifestyle because it offers us that freedom and space to learn spontaneously. 

I’ve noticed over the years that like most learning approaches, gameschooling is a spectrum. On one end, you have “Learning through Games” and on the other end, you have “Teaching through Games”. We lean more towards the former. Gaming is self-directed, organic and fun for us. I do not have learning objectives in mind when I play games with the children. Instead, I’ve taught myself to recognise teachable moments and learning opportunities while gaming with my children. 

Writer Wan Ling’s two daughters at a game of “Fly a Way”. Image credit: Tan Wan Ling

Elaine Cheah:

Gameschooling, to me, is using any type of games to teach. It can be structured or unstructured but essentially using fun and tapping on the child’s innate desire to play. 

Ly-ann Tan Low:

Gameschooling is about learning through games; either “gamifying” the way we learn or using games to inspire learning.

Q2. How did you start gameschooling?

Tan Wan Ling:

Instead of sharing how we got started on gameschooling, let me share why we have never stopped playing games. My husband and I have loved tabletop gaming since we were dating, so when our daughter was old enough, we roped her in as a fellow player. We started with games like Tic-Tac-Toe and simple board games.

Now, we bring card games everywhere we go, playing at the dentist’s office or at a restaurant while we wait for our food. It is the one thing that we have never stopped doing in our homeschooling journey even when I had a newborn and on sick days. We play all the time and everywhere. While I could see how much my daughters were learning, the time and resources we were spending on games did worry me. My mummy-guilt was allayed when I chanced upon the term “gameschooling” on the Internet. I realised that learning through games is well-grounded in established practices in education.

Elaine Cheah:

I did not set out to gameschool. I just wanted to have fun with my kids. I enjoyed spontaneously creating games to get them thinking and learning. For example, we would play word games in the car and mental sums at the taxi queue. 

My husband and I are both board gamers so gameschooling was a natural progression. Our kids were introduced to board games around the age of three years. We prefer to nurture them through board games rather than gadget gaming. 

Ly-ann Tan Low:

Before we had kids, my husband and I were tabletop gamers. When the babies came along, we had to take a break. As they grew older, they started enjoying puzzles and simple games designed for babies. When we embarked on  Montessori-inspired activities, I used to dig from amongst my game pieces for materials that my children could use. That was how we ventured into gameschooling. Very soon, we learnt how to leverage on games to let my children demonstrate what they had learnt. We also use games to learn something new together.

I did grow a little bored while staying home with the babies since there was only so much pretend play that I could do. My preferred form of play is board games and my daughters now know that it only takes a game to get me involved. 

As an educator, I found it quite satisfying to see how teaching pedagogy could be translated into play. My kids were early learners but being too young to hold a pen or paper to show what they knew, games demonstrated their learning better. One of the skills that I have adapted from my teaching experience is how to zero in on specific learning areas, set learning targets and break down the learning process for the children. From there, I would either identify relevant games or gamify something to drive their learning. 

Q3. Why did you choose to gameschool? Why is it an important element in your homeschool?

Tan Wan Ling:

Through games, my children learn fast and joyfully. The games come with an extrinsic motivation for the children to put in their best effort. My eldest daughter was first driven to sound out words to read property names in Monopoly. I can always count on games as an avenue to introduce new ideas and concepts and spark deeper conversation. At the onset of the pandemic, I came up with a simple decoding game to empower my children and help them make sense of the changes that were taking place so quickly in the world.

Elaine Cheah:

I like both the tangible and intangible benefits of game-schooling. When kids have fun, they learn. When they want to play, they are motivated. When they decide that they want to win, they will think and strategise. 

Tangibly, we can use board games to teach academic subjects and make them very structured. For example, I like Codenames, Just One, Dixit and Once Upon a Time to expand their vocabulary. I can use Point Salad, Rummikub and any point-taking games to improve their Maths and mental calculation. 

Interestingly, my girl, Rebekah, was motivated to read due to a game she wanted to play while staying home due to Covid restrictions. She was 6 years plus and was still non-committal to reading. I was not too fazed as I felt they would grow into it at some point. She was coaxing me to play Mini DiverCity but I was too busy with work and kept postponing the playing and the brothers had moved on to other games. One day, I heard her muttering to herself, “Fine. You don’t play with me, I will do it myself.” She then began to attempt to sound out the words from the instruction manual phonetically. I was floored. She is now able to read simple game instructions and teach the family how to play the game. This gaming Mama is proud of her.  

Ly-ann Tan Low:

I chose gameschool for many reasons!

Firstly, I want to encourage my kids to have fun and keep that childlike desire to play for as long as they can. Since the key reason we homeschool is to get away from the demands of conventional schooling that tends to take away a lot of their time from playing, gameschooling comes as a natural progression.

Secondly, when the kids are relaxed and having fun, it is much easier for them to assimilate the content and the skills that they ought to be learning. I want to avoid the high stakes anxiety so that they can try without fearing failure. It is much easier to take to “failing” in a game than it is to see a page of worksheets with red crosses. The latter tends to have a more undesirable effect on their self-esteem.

Thirdly, as an extension to my second point, if a game that they are playing is interesting, it is likely to foster curiosity to learn on their own. If learning content or skill helps them have more fun, play better and beat their opponents, they become more self-motivated to learn on their own. 

Lastly, I love gameschooling as it is intensely relationship-building. It is a productive and fun way to spend time with my children, whether individually or as a family. You can learn a lot about your teammates and what they are capable of. Children learn all sorts of social skills within that space. Turn-taking, sportsmanship, cooperation, how to read emotions, thoughts, feelings, body language, and when to “push and pull” in a social dynamic. Perhaps what my kids love the most about gameschool is how it is one avenue where they can have the full reign to take on an adult. At the game table, we are equals and they are more than encouraged to be a fierce opponent and beat me in a game. They plan, scheme and research on their own time so that next time around, they are better equipped to win the game. And that’s good too. They don’t realise that when they win, I also win! 

Any point-taking games, like Point Salad, can be used to improve Math and mental calculations. Image credit: Elaine Cheah

Q4. How do you make gameschooling a part of your homeschool?

Tan Wan Ling:

Firstly, we adopt a positive mindset towards games. We don’t see playing games as a waste of time. Instead, we make time and space for it. We create a learning environment that is very open and interactive. By that, I mean that we do our deskwork at the dining table together. This often means that one of the children will invite us to a game of something. It’s always hard to turn down such invitations, which is why we keep our homeschooling routine very flexible. The children have a daily work-bin each. They know that the daily work will have to be completed by the end of the day, so they manage their time accordingly. We also have “White Space” days and game nights pencilled into our weekly schedule and these give us more space and time to play as a family.

Elaine Cheah:

I just ensure that I play a lot with them. When I have specific goals, I draw up my own little games for them. When I am after something more relaxed or intend to kill many birds with a stone, I play a random game from our collection. When I am too tired to get into a strategic game, I have a few favourites that are great time fillers that meet the kids’ need for play and mine for mental breaks. We play such games a lot in our family. 

Ly-ann Tan Low:

There are three, maybe four ways we do this. 

I try to turn any opportunity to practice a new skill in our curriculum into a game.

We dedicate one whole week to games every other month. Instead of having a “term break”, we institute a Games Week. 

We set aside time to play games as a family every evening. This is our family routine for as long as we are at home. We cycle through the games based on subject matters so that all our targeted topics are covered.

We invite other kids, students and homeschoolers to join us so much so that being tabletop gamers is a great part of our kids’ life. These sessions are like adult game nights – but in the daytime and for kids!

Games Week and gaming sessions for children. Image credit: Ly-ann Tan

Q5. What do your children enjoy the most about gameschooling?

Tan Wan Ling:

I do not think they are aware that they are gameschooling. We just enjoy games in general as a family and as parents, we see that they are learning. That gives us great satisfaction.

Elaine Cheah:

They love playing and opening new games, so I use that to motivate them. While they enjoy playing amongst themselves, they really love it when we play as a family. The children love winning, especially against their parents. Sometimes they cheat and gang up just to beat us. 

Ly-ann Tan Low:

I think my kids appreciate how playing games lead to time spent together. They find satisfaction in putting a newly acquired skill into action and knowing that what I taught them is actually useful. To children, “useful” means fun that can be had. They also love knowing that they can beat us fair and square. Not every day is filled with sunshine and rainbows; on some days, they get frustrated with us. On those days, they know that they can take it out on us in the game that we play and it will be a fair arena. I think that competition is healthy within those boundaries. 

Q6. What are the benefits of gameschooling that are not pronounced in conventional methods to learning? 

Tan Wan Ling:

Games are a great way to finetune children’s emotional intelligence, social skills and situational awareness. Any game is a microcosm of the real world where there are rules to abide by, people to relate to and resources to manage. In games, the stakes are low and the consequences small, so children can afford to make mistakes and learn from them.

Elaine Cheah:

I believe that any game can be used to reap the benefits of gameschooling. I know that most peoples’ selection of games is educationally driven, but I believe that any game teaches my child something. During our gaming sessions, my child learns logic, strategy, winning, losing, waiting, making difficult choices, thinking ahead etc. 

Ly-ann Tan Low:

Gameschooling ensures a fun element that makes it easier for kids to absorb information and do their own research. It can also expose them to complex ideas earlier and this translates into those topics and ideas being easier to absorb when introduced in formal teaching. In addition, a higher level of thinking skills tends to be utilised within games. When the same level of content knowledge and critical thinking skills are expected of children in a formal teaching environment, it would usually entail repetition rather than their use of their creative, independent energies. 

Q7. What are some tips you can give parents about gameschooling?

Tan Wan Ling:

Make time and space in your family for games. It is worth it just for the bonding and memories that you will have. Start with a monthly or weekly game night and a card game.

Just for the duration of the game, withhold any verbal judgement and evaluation of your children. I know it’s hard but try to enjoy the game as a fellow player. You will experience your children as unique individuals who are capable of holding their own and marvel at their sound faculty of the mind. 

Elaine Cheah:

Drop the “school” part and focus on the “game” part. The schooling will happen when the kids have fun. In fact, when the whole family has fun, schooling is even more pronounced because the experience goes beyond mere academics. We are “schooling” our kids in our belief system and future-proofing our family against the potential negative impact of growing up and stress. 

Ly-ann Tan Low:

If you have not done it before, take small steps to just play tabletop games as a family first to build that muscle. In the beginning, start at a lower level than you think they are at so that your kids are encouraged by the ease and have fun. Make time for games. It is easier to hand out worksheets for multiplication practice but although playing a game to practice multiplication is time-consuming and demands your attention, it is much more rewarding. Besides the gaming element, the chance of being equal to your kids creates fun and builds a closer relationship – all while learning Maths!

Slowly build up subject-centric games. Ask around amongst families what their favourite games are. It also helps if other kids are excited about something as it becomes more appealing to our own kids. It works almost like peer pressure. If you need some ideas, I have a downloadable game list by subjects of the tabletop titles we have used. It is not exhaustive – these are the ones I have selected to use with the kids after careful curation. The idea is to have fun so that they keep coming back and then when they do, you can introduce the learning elements. It also does not have to be expensive. Second-hand games are a great way to start.

Q8. What are some resources for gameschooling?

Tan Wan Ling:

Finding good games:

Board Game Geek

More about a gameschooling lifestyle:

My Little Poppies

Elaine Cheah:

Any board games café or stores.

Board Game Geek

YouTubers and bloggers who focus on gameschooling or using board games to teach. 

And of course, My Lefko 😀

Ly-ann Tan Low:

Youtube: Miss Game School

Instragram: Miss Game School