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Science is the name of the game

It's all win-win: primary science can be taught through games, as Hellen Ward explains

Interesting science lessons are not found everywhere. "They go on and on and when they have finished you do not have enough time to do the work," as one Year 3 boy from a large rural school told me. Understanding and using different learning styles has become central to some schools' ways of working, and play is a good way to broaden the range. Play by itself does not provide interesting lessons, because in order for pupils to be able to play they must be on task.

The games must be both motivating and fun. Team games in science are more motivating, for all learners, if teams are made up of pupils of mixed abilities. If pupils can improve their performance, they will be keen to learn. Many pupils do not even think of such activity as "work". This type of play is "win-win", where all pupils work together to improve the class time or score rather than compete. Games can be helpful in teaching hard-to-learn facts, such as the life cycle of plants, and are also a good way to bring up complex issues such as drugs or smoking.

Language development is central to learning science; games that help with vocabulary should be encouraged. Bingo, chain (link) games and matching words and definitions are all easy and fun. Scientific hangman can develop pupils' visual vocabulary; when the word is guessed they gain extra points if they can also define it.

"I can think of three..." is a quick and easy way to encourage pupils to use thinking skills, for example: "Name three solids that are opaque." Develop this by asking them how many things they can name that share properties, eg opaque and solid.

Crosswords and word searches have always been popular. There are web pages and software programs where teachers enter key words to devise tailor-made word searches (try Google with "wordsearch" and "teacher"). Crosswords on the overhead projector or interactive whiteboard are effective starters: some groups work on clues across while others focus on clues down.

Collaborative working should be encouraged in science. Scientist themselves are not "loners" in white coats. Develop this by providing a completed crossword without clues. Starting from the answer and developing the question helps children to think in more detail. For example: "What is the question if the answer is 'space'?" - appropriate questions range from "Star Trek calls this the final frontier" to "Sounds will not travel in this medium", and many more besides. Talking with pupils about the good clues - questions rather than definitions - is a skill that can developed from this type of activity.

Visual memory and linking can be enhanced with memory games. For "Kim's game", provide pupils with a range of scientific equipment, ask them to memorise the display, then "offstage" remove one item and ask them to identify which is missing. Or show everything briefly and then ask for the name and purpose of as many pieces of equipment as possible.

"Odd one out" promotes links and reasoning. Start with a number of real objects (key stage 1) so that the pattern can be found, then reduce the number of objects until, mid-way through KS2, words only can be provided.

For example: "In the following list, which is the odd one out and why? Chocolate, butter, lard, wood, jelly and metal." Some pupils will identify wood as the odd one out because it will not melt, others may identify metal as the only conductor of electricity, while older pupils and adults may identify metal as the only one that is not organic.

Teachers need to ensure that science knowledge is sound - if in doubt, always check - as games are an easy way to cause misconceptions. It is also important to remember that some words and definitions in science can have more than one meaning. Providing questions where pupils choose the answer will also help with misconceptions.

"Twenty questions" gets pupils asking "good" questions, to identify an object as quickly as possible. With experience, they stop trying to guess the item ("Is it a pencil?") and start to think of key questions (eg "Is it alive?", "Does it breathe?"). These skills are vital if pupils are to understand sorting, grouping and classification, all key scientific skills.

Not all lessons should be game-related but games that promote different learning styles should be built into science schemes of work. The most important criterion will be: "Does it meet the learning intention?"

Games are not a panacea for poor science, but they can help develop understanding.

Hellen Ward teaches at Canterbury Christchurch University College

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