Purposeful fun in the classroom

Making puzzles rather than solving them can add new dimensions to what children already find fun. Shanta Rameshwar Rao recounts what she tried in her classroom of twelve-year olds...

Puzzles and games are excellent teaching devices – as all good and innovative teachers will tell you. They are quite widely used in classrooms. Children, of course, love them, and they bring about much useful mental activity and interaction. I have found however, that an even better and more challenging way to use this activity is to set the pupils to the making rather than just the solving of ready-made puzzles.

It can start of course, with solving ready-made puzzles and playing ready-made games. But this can be followed by a session of thinking about the puzzle/game, analysing it, examining its purpose and principle, discussing it, and finding out if the pupils can make variations on it looking at it from the inside, as it were. It is amazing and heart-warming how much purposeful thinking and conversation get generated in the classroom when once such a project is underway.

The good old crossword puzzle, for instance, can be a starter. Begin by building one step-by-step on the blackboard, with the help of the children. You are now working at building up vocabulary. Get the children to help with making up the clues – improving them, making them clearer and better worded. A dictionary and thesaurus will come in useful now. The children will consult them freely and gladly, and follow up with many suggestions and modifications.

After the whole puzzle is worked out on the blackboard, the pupils can help erase letters to blank some of the squares. At this stage they can copy down the puzzle with the clues in their notebooks to take home for parents, siblings and others to solve. They can be asked to make up more such puzzles either individually or in groups. The children love this.

The excellent book ‘Grammar Games’ by Mario Rinvolucri has many games that can be used in this way to help pupils invent, make up, modify etc., the ones in the book. One fascinating game is called “auctions”. We started out in class 8 (12 years old) by discussing real auctions and exchanging information about them. Terms like bid, going, gone were discussed and then the class played the auction game.One person was chosen as auctioneer and each student was given a fixed amount of paper money to spend. The auctioneer auctioned groups of words, and the students bid for complete sentences. The idea was to collect the largest number of complete sentences without squandering money.

At the end of the game the children discussed its use as an educational device – What did we learn? What were we being taught? They came up with many answers. Among other things they identified their fellow students who not having understood the principle of the activity, allowed themselves to get excited, bid rashly and squander their money. Some children thereafter suggested an improvement in the game – they suggested a subsidiary auction of spare words and phrases which could be bid for and bought relatively cheaply and used to complete the incomplete sentences.

Of course, puzzles and games are not and cannot be substitutes for regular learning. They are to be used only occasionally. Teachers need to think them out from many sides and to collect and store them in their file of “Good Ideas”. As more and more games and puzzles are invented there is a great involvement of all the students and the classroom acquires new and vital energy!

This article, by Shanta Rameshwar Rao,  first appeared in Teacher Plus, Issue No.6, May-June 1990 and has been adapted here with changes.

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