Students Learning From Gaming

Last week, I wrote about bringing Dungeons & Dragons to the after-school classroom (incidentally, D&D was in the Times opinion section this past weekend) and about how I more-or-less stumbled into the whole thing. Today I’m writing just a bit about some of what I’ve seen in observing 5th through 8th graders play D&D on most Wednesdays since I began running Nerd Hour back in January 2018. Not every kid plays D&D, but many of them do. I’m not going to avoid the use of cliche, here, since cliches seem the best way to capture what I’m seeing.

Kids have found a fit – they belong. First is something I alluded to in Friday’s post: students who sometimes had nothing to do after school now have something positive to do with their time. This doesn’t go for every Nerd Herd kid, but it’s a story I’ve heard frequently from parents of participating students. They have often said, “My daughter is so thrilled with Nerd Hour – she finally has something to do after school!” My impression is that some of these kids were finding ways to play games that they liked after school, but having a specific block of time dedicated to that purpose is beneficial. They’ve also found a fit in terms of friends. Kids who come to Nerd Hour have a built-in friend group as soon as they show up. We’ve even had some out-of-town family members get permission to attend with regular Nerd Herders – even those who are explicitly not a part of our school’s community have felt welcomed in our group. The culture is one of belonging, and these kids belong.

Students are learning to lead. Students who otherwise don’t get a lot of opportunities to be leaders in their peer group are running D&D games at Nerd Hour. They’re telling a story, managing a table of rowdy after-school Nerd Herd kids, and are learning all the skills that behavior management demands.

They’re using their imaginations, and this is good for learning empathy. One of the biggest facets of kid-personality I’ve learned about since I began working with kids in 2013 is that kids are generally horrible at empathizing. In the first or second grade, this means that most of them spend most of P.E. time assuming  that everyone else is cheating and conspiring against them. In fourth grade, it might mean that writing from another person’s point of view is really tough! In the sixth or seventh grades, it might mean that, in learning about sarcasm, kids are being unintentionally cruel in their humor toward others (often in a misguided attempt to gain the target’s friendship). In short, kids who haven’t yet developed the maturity level needed really to empathize with someone else – to walk a mile in another person’s moccasins… they’re a bit sociopathic. What I’ve observed in watching them play D&D over the last fifteen months or so is that they play entire multi-week-long campaigns from the perspective of someone other than themselves (that is, they play from their character’s point of view). Think about adopting a persona in a video game, but with direct and constant human interaction. It is a kind of moral training. They learn not to sabotage their own party and to take turns during the game – even when they have something they consider to be important to say – and in so doing, they are learning social skills that helps them not to destroy learning opportunities for other students in their classrooms. They learn how to imagine how another person might feel in a hypothetical situation. They learn, in short, to empathize with others.

Kids are learning to hype. I had a thought today – that there are kids who at some point in the future will use the skills they are acquiring specifically with regard to hyping their games-of-choice to sell some product or idea in their future IRL jobs. I never force anyone to play anything in particular, and so when a student comes to me and says, “Mr. Capone – I really want to get kids to join my campaign next week. Can you help?” I essentially tell the student how to hype their game and show up at Nerd Hour with a crew ready to roll. This works! Kids who otherwise would just sit and nervously feel sad when no one leaps at their callout at the start of a game session are going out and building the hype around their game – their product, in essence. It’s impressive.

Kids are learning about commitment. Again, I never attempt to force kids to play a game they do not want to play. It would be impossible, probably, but it would lose me a lot of Nerd Hour community members. No one likes being told what to do, and being told what to play seems even worse, somehow. But students know, “If I don’t finish the game I started, other people will drop out of my games without worrying, too.” Sometimes, this doesn’t become apparent immediately, but it usually is something my Nerd Herd students learn. They stick around to games they start, and they’re learning how to finish what they start more generally, too. It’s an important lesson that is best learned not from parents forcing their kids to finish what they start but through natural social consequences. We talk about these consequences explicitly – as a group and one-on-one.


This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. In short, there’s a lot going on with D&D and what students are learning just by participating in gaming after school. They’re learning social skills and plenty of thinking skills, and they’re having fun while doing it. I love it, and I hope I get the student involvement necessary to my continuing in running Nerd Hour!


What do your students get out of gaming after (or during) school?

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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