Learning goes by the board

Sue Law

A former teacher's home-made games make lessons fun, although you have to be sensible to win. Sue Law reports

While most teachers will be sitting down to the obligatory Christmas board games sessions over the holidays, Margot Fawcett will be making them.

Ms Fawcett, who describes herself as "an escaped teacher", decided to set up a small business creating educational board games after an Ofsted inspector praised the quality of the home-made games she used in her own lessons at Cosby primary school near Leicester. "I had always used games in teaching; when the children were bored revising for science tests I decided to make it more fun," she says. She left teaching to set up MF Games in 1998, and has since developed a range of 28 board games and two large floor games sold through catalogues, exhibitions and online.

One of her latest offerings is Tough Stuff - a drugs awareness game that gives primary children the opportunity to discuss what to do if they encounter illegal drugs. Ms Fawcett worked with Leicester's drugs education officer to create the game as a discussion tool to help teachers struggling with a difficult PSHEscience topic in which there is a range of opinions but no definite answers.

On a return visit to Cosby primary to try out Tough Stuff with a mixed Year 5 and 6 class, she hands out the boards, spinners and plastic counters. She explains: "Because you are older I'm going to let you decide where you find the objects. There can be different answers but we want the sensible one to win a point." The children are keen to get started, and settle down in groups of four.

Tough Stuff includes pictures of potential hazards including prescription pills, syringes, hairspray and packets of sweets, which children have to decide how to deal with. Emily picks a tube of sweets, and the spinner lands on the action "bin it". "I wouldn't bin it, as some illegal tablets might be inside. I would probably tell my parents," she says.

Samantha approves. "That's thoughtful. It's worth a point."

Class teacher Clare Hill is called over to another group to arbitrate in a noisy debate about the best thing to do with a bag of sweets found outdoors. After sorting out the problem, she admits to surprise at the extent of children's knowledge about drugs. "They need to know the risks, and this way they are more likely to give their opinions. I mixed the groups to include chatty and shy ones, so they all get a chance to speak," she says "There are no similar board games that I know of, and this subject can be difficult to teach. Another time, I might use role-play with the game so the children have an answer ready if they come across peer pressure to try something."

Special needs teacher Linda Kelly is also enthusiastic about the game, especially its versatility. "It's great, particularly for lower abilities, as it is visual and can be used on many levels. It makes them think a lot as they have to give reasons."

Emily agrees. "It's fun, and instead of the teacher just writing on the board, you can talk it through with your friends and learn it yourself."

Orders are coming in regularly, but Ms Fawcett still colours each original game by hand - "the children relate to it better" - and has no plans to go into full-scale production. She is happy making up boxes in her lounge and sticking pieces of Velcro, although the boards are now professionally colour copied and laminated.

"I did approach a plastics company as I had an idea of selling the designs. But they only offered a tiny amount, and a lot of the work I had anticipated enjoying so much would be taken away."

After a lifetime in schools, she faced her own steep learning curve to acquire skills for running a small business, and initially found marketing especially daunting. "After years talking to children, finding the confidence to sell yourself to adults can be difficult. But people have a different attitude when they realise I am a teacher and not just a sales rep," says Ms Fawcett. "I wear many hats but that is part of the fun. I have left the classroom but I could never leave education. It is so satisfying to have time to do the job properly, and when I visit schools now I can really talk to the children and get to know them."

MF board games cost pound;4.99 (with a 10 per cent discount on orders of four sets or more), and large floor games cost pound;350. Margot Fawcett also runs workshop on games.MF Games, 19 Linden Drive, Leicester LE5 6AJ. Telfax: 0116 273 7541; website: www.thefawcetts.freeserve co.uk; email: mfgames@thefawcetts.freeserve.co.uk

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