Turn Up the Heat!
A Study of Teaching and Learning During Family Board Game Play

By Alex Baum   |   Primary Advisor: Professor Michael Horn, School of Education and Social Policy   |   Secondary Reader: Professor Shirin Vossoughi, School of Education and Social Policy   |   Social Policy, School of Education and Social Policy   |   Honors Thesis   |   NURJ Online 2015-16   |
Submitted: March 28, 2016   |   Published: April 28, 2016


Among the most pressing concerns parents have for their children are the quality and progression of their education. A large degree of learning occurs in informal learning settings such as the home. At home, learning can occur through many kinds of activities. Board game play is a home activity in which family members engage together that may facilitate children’s learning. The present study analyzes video footage of three families each playing Turn Up the Heat!, a team-based board game focused on energy conservation. Qualitative analysis of video data identifies how learning might be occurring through gameplay interactions between family members.

The study finds that parents and children vocalize their thinking, attach meaning to abstract game information (a process called qualitative labeling), and draw on real-life experiences to understand the game. Players may assume teacher and learner roles at different points throughout the game, and these teaching and learning roles are fluid and complex. Teaching and learning practices also vary across ages and households.

This study contributes to our understanding of the kinds of gameplay-related practices and dispositions in which people are capable of engaging. It is possible that by studying board game play in homes, more educational opportunities within board game play may be further identified and examined. This study will hopefully pave the way for future research into how the practices, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that players engage in during board game play at home might be harnessed or built upon in school contexts.


Among the most pressing concerns parents have for their children are the quality and progression of their education. One overarching problem that much education-related research seeks to address is that many students are not performing at the academic standards that parents, researchers, teachers, and officials hope for. But students themselves are not the most important factors that determine their educational outcomes. The environments in which students learn, both in school and out, may also play an important role in their education.  At home, learning can occur through many kinds of activities, such as board games.  This study examines the interactions between family members playing a board game at home and how those interactions may affect learning.

A large degree of learning occurs outside of formal education settings, in informal environments, which can include extracurricular clubs, museums, outdoor excursions, and the home (Feder, Shouse, Lewenstein, & Bell, 2009).  Children learn valuable lessons and skills at home, and building upon this home learning may improve students’ classroom experience (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992, p. 132).  At home, children participate in literacy activities in which they practice numeracy, speech and grammar, and storybook reading. Like storybook reading, board game play is a home activity in which family members engage together that may facilitate children’s learning.  Players learn the objects, rules and skills necessary to navigate a game, and work with other players in the process.  During Scrabble, for example, children practice spelling and can expand their vocabulary. In playing Yahtzee, children might learn about chance and probability. Family board game play may also serve an important role in children’s educational development.

The goal of this study is to analyze the interactions taking place between family members around a board game and to identify how learning might be occurring through these interactions. This study will 1) explain the importance of storybook reading in children’s learning and development; 2) discuss board game play, its similarities to storybook reading, and its potential for study; 3) introduce Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development and Rogoff’s (1994) community of learners concept as two frameworks through which to examine board game play at home; and 4) discuss and analyze, through video data, the ways family members teach and learn from one another as they play a board game together.

This study examines video footage collected by the Tangible Interaction Design and Learning (TIDAL) Lab at Northwestern University, which filmed families playing an energy conservation board game entitled Turn Up the Heat!.  The insight gained from this research will hopefully pave the way for future research into how the practices, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that players engage in during board game play at home might be harnessed or built upon in schools.

Literature Review and Conceptual Framework

1. Storybook Reading at Home: Crucial for Children’s Learning and Development

Storybook reading is an important practice in certain cultures. In western cultures, for example, children may benefit from storybook reading as they enter western schooling systems because these schooling systems are embedded in cultures that value storybook reading as a useful activity. It is well documented that storybook reading at home is linked to early literacy in school. Parents help make books more “accessible” for young, inexperienced readers (Bus, van IJzendoorn & Pellegrini, 1995, p. 16). Reading also exposes children to written language and prepares children to learn to read at school (pp. 3, 16). Book reading may also spark a child’s interest in reading (p. 2), which could prompt children to read more often.  This is important because the frequency with which children read books affects their literacy skills (p. 15). 

Since there are strong parallels in the interactions over a book and around a board game (e.g. readers may discuss topics or themes in a book just as players may discuss rules or game strategy) much of this literature review will focus on storybook reading. It is important to note, however, that storybook reading is only one of many “literacy activities and practices” that families engage in at home (Razfar & Gutierrez, 2003, p. 37). Storytelling, for example, is another type of literacy activity that families employ. Diverse and varied kinds of literacy practices must be valued so as to avoid “narrow conceptions of literacy and culture” (Razfar & Gutierrez, 2003, p. 37). 

There are a number of literacy practices that parents and children employ, including within storybook reading.  For example, adults and children engage in reading practices, such as “naming of characters and objects in the illustration mentioned in the story,” “relating text to illustration,” “naming details of illustrations,” “discussing one’s own experiences relevant for comprehension of text or illustration,” “making connections beyond the text,” “paraphrasing the text” and “constructively discussing the procedure of book reading itself” (Bus, Leseman & Keultjes, 2000, pp. 60-1).  Not surprisingly, children’s learning is at least partially contingent upon parents’ efforts to help them grasp new ideas as they read (p. 54). And when children are read to at least three times per week before entering kindergarten, they are “almost twice as likely to score in the top 25 percent in reading” as children who are not read to as frequently (U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, 2002, p. 16).

2. Board Game Play

Just like storybook reading, parent-child interaction is a common feature of board game play. Parent-child reading interactions are related to parent-child board game interactions because in both contexts, parents and children can exchange ideas and gain insights from one another. Many games involve interaction among players by nature of the game.  Sometimes players compete against one another in pursuit of a goal.  Some games, however, are defined as “collective” games, or games in which players work together and collectively win or lose the game (Parlett, 1999, p. 3). Turn Up the Heat! is a collaborative game. Even when games are competitive, as in a game of dominos, social interaction is important and helpful to players (Nasir, 2005).  For example, social interaction can provide players with problem solving strategies to address the challenges of the game (Nasir, 2005, pp. 6-7). Players in some games will help each other in a variety of ways, and these methods of aid affect the kinds of learning that occur during gameplay (Guberman & Saxe, 2000, p. 205). In other words, players will “draw on” one another to solve problems that arise during gameplay (Nasir, 2005, p. 7). When players engage in conversation around the table, they establish a unique “context” for thinking about game concepts and strategy (Nasir, 2005, p. 7).  Players sometimes use complex phrases and jargon specific to the game in order to expose others to new ideas and strategies (Nasir, 2005, p.28).  Sometimes, players even teach each other by making fun of each other (p. 24).  Players also undergo different “cognitive shifts” at different ages (Nasir, 2005, p. 28). 

Collaboration is not limited to board game play; during video game play, players will create “learning arrangements,” meaning they will help one another successfully learn skills of a video game and accomplish game tasks (Stevens, Satwicz & McCarthy, 2008, p.44).  These interactions facilitate learning because players interact “in-room” and not just “in-game” which allows players to work together and help each other succeed by sharing knowledge (Stevens, Satwicz & McCarthy, 2008, p. 52-3). Researchers are already seeking improved methods for designing learning materials, such as video games, in order to promote “social interaction and engagement,” implying the educational utility of collaboration when playing these games (Takeuchi et al., 2011).  Like the collaborative interactions between family members during storybook reading, collaboration among participants during board game play is of interest to this study, as this collaboration may be an important context for learning.  Collaboration provides a unique context in which players can learn how to think, act, speak and play the game in new ways by interacting with others. The act of collaboration itself involves learning, as players must learn how to work with others, within both the game domain and within the broader social context.           

We know that play has long been a topic of interest in the learning sciences.  Vygotsky saw a link between play, abstract thought and children’s development: “[f]rom the point of view of development, creating an imaginary situation can be regarded as a means of developing abstract thought” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 103). “Imaginary situations” are similar to board games in that, like board games, there are rules in every imaginary situation that children obey (p. 95).  As in imaginary situations, when playing board games, players must learn the rules of the game and how to play effectively within their constraints. When players play within a set of rules, they enter a new context in which they can think and learn (Vygotsky, 1978). Players engage in complex thinking as they ask questions, make decisions and develop strategies to play the game well within this context.  It is therefore plausible that board games may also potentially be a developmentally beneficial activity.

The body of knowledge regarding board game play is surprisingly limited.  Broadly, games themselves have ends and means (Parlett, 1999, p. 3).  Players operate under agreed-upon rules and use specific equipment to achieve the end of winning (p. 3). Board games can also be categorized as positional, themed, or a combination of both (Parlett, 1999, pp. 6-7).  Positional games are those in which players move pieces according to the markings on the surface underneath them (pp. 6-7).  A central element to themed games are that they are “representational (property trading, murder solving[)]…and may involve elements of role-play and quasi-dramatic performances, as in fantasy games” (pp. 6-7).  Board games can also be sorted as “race,” “space,” “chase,” “displace,” or “theme” games (p. 9). Board games can “prompt” newer players to “engage in relatively complex computational thinking” (Berland & Lee, 2011, p. 66).  Over time, players may develop and play games according to social norms, including using language specific to gameplay (Nasir, 2004).  Extending the discussion again to the related world of videogaming, players of varying abilities help one another learn skills needed for successful gameplay (Stevens, Satwicz & McCarthy, 2008, p. 52). 

Board games are an interesting site in which to search for evidence of learning, as they often include potentially educational activities and features such as chance, dice rolling, propeller spinning, etc.  Games often depend on chance, skill, or a combination of the two (Parlett, 1999, p. 19).  In many games, there are also a wide variety of mathematical representations and opportunities to practice mathematical operations, such as the use of play money and property purchasing in Monopoly (Guberman & Saxe, 2000, p. 202). Gameplay contingent upon dice values, card numbers, numbers on spinners, and counting also provide opportunities for practice with mathematical operations.   And just as in storybook reading, there are opportunities for literacy practice in many board games as well, such as when players must read cards, the board itself, or the rules and directions.  It is possible that by studying board game play in homes, more educational opportunities incorporating board game play may be further identified and examined.

While some information about board games and board game play exists, very little is known about what board game play looks like in homes. Horn, Banerjee, D’Angelo, Kuo, Pollock and Stevens (2014) conducted a study of families playing board games.  The researchers developed a board game and studied in-game interactions among family members and how they related the game to real-world situations (Horn et al., 2014, p. 2). Horn et al. found that families implement “sophisticated strategies” as they worked together to play the game (p. 2).  Hopefully, more studies of family board game play will reveal findings such as these that could inform future game design or educational practices. 

 Of course, each family raises their children with different teaching styles and with different resources. In general, parental involvement in home education has differing levels of impact across different groups of people, including across income levels and race (Lee & Bowen, 2006; Desimone, 1999).  Parental involvement in education may look different between families, and it may also have differing levels of impact on children. Returning to reading as an example, the methods by which children and parents use print in their home, and also the frequency with which they use it, differs even across homes of similar low socioeconomic status (Purcell-Gates, 1996).  Parents use print in various ways, such as reading food labels, signing names, or reading posters (Purcell-Gates, 1996).  Families also choose to purchase different kinds of board games and play them with varying levels of seriousness and frequency.  Similar to the distinction between storybook reading and storytelling, families engage in various play activities, many of which do not involve board games.  Families play hide and seek, trivia games on road trips, and even invent their own games. Each family has a unique historical background and set of resources, so interactions among players will be unique in every family.  Even if two families have similar motivations and aspirations for their children, the children may learn in different ways.  It is important to keep these differences between families in mind because they enrich our understanding of learning in informal settings and remind us to exercise caution before generalizing and making assumptions.

3. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development as a Framework for the Study

I am adopting Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development (ZPD) as a broad frame through which to examine board game play at home.  People are able to solve certain problems on their own (Vygotsky, 1978, p 85).  This individual problem solving ability, this set of “mental functions” that has already been developed, is called a person’s “actual developmental level” (p. 85).  But people are also able to learn and do things with others’ assistance that they could not do on their own.  This ability to learn with guidance varies from person to person (pp. 84, 86).  The ZPD is the distance between a person’s actual developmental level and their potential developmental level (p. 86). In other words, the zone of proximal development is a socially established interactional connection between people (p. 86).  Specific to children, the ZPD reveals mental functions that are currently undergoing “maturation” within a child (p. 86).  The ZPD frames interactions during board game play as potentially developmental opportunities for players.

4. Barbara Rogoff’s Community of Learners as a Second Framework for the Study

Building on the ZPD, Rogoff’s community of learners theory also highlights the role that social interactions play in learning.  The community of learners theory is one of three “instructional models” in which learning occurs. In the first instructional model, called the adult-run model, adults transfer information to children, who passively receive it (Rogoff, 1994, p. 211).  In the children-run model, adults provide an educational setting for children, but let children discover and explore on their own as much as possible (Rogoff, 1994, p. 212). In the third developmental model, called the community-of-learners model, children and adults are all active participants in the activity.  In this model, adults assume leadership roles most of the time, but children sometimes assume these roles as well (Rogoff, 1994, p. 213).  All participants play “asymmetric” roles in the activity, and these roles look different in each community (Rogoff, 1994, p. 213).  In a community of learners, learning is a “transformation of participation;” in other words, learning is reflected by how a person changes as they participate in an activity (Rogoff, 1004, p. 209). 

The community-of-learners theory is a useful framework for this study for several reasons.  Families learn to play the board game together, as opposed to parents simply teaching their children how to play. Participants also play asymmetric roles in the game context, and this study examines how those roles may shift over time. Finally, the goal of Turn Up the Heat! is to help players to think about limited resources and energy conservation. This study examines how players use these ideas to play the game more effectively over time, a “transformation” that Rogoff would define as learning.

Significance, Motivation and Research Question

It is important to study the ways players glean, internalize and exercise information from their home educations. This study will contribute to our understanding of the kinds of gameplay-related practices and dispositions that players are capable of engaging in. In pursuit of these aims, this study will seek to answer the following questions:  How do family members teach and learn from one another during board game play? What roles to players play during the game, and how do these roles shift over time? How do interactions with others help players play the game more effectively?

Ultimately, this study pursues the above research questions with the hope of understanding how family board game play, like storybook reading, might help prepare children to learn more effectively in school and beyond.  The link between board game play at home and classroom learning is beyond the scope of this study.  However, this study will hopefully pave the way for future research into how the practices, skills, attitudes, and behaviors players employ during board game play at home might be harnessed or built upon in schools. Even if school learning is not entirely dependent on home learning, the “valuable skills and abilities” students bring from home “can translate into ways of being that have significant value within school contexts” (Compton-Lilly, 2007, p.97). Additionally, from the standpoint of teachers, the learning and complex thinking that takes place during board game play may potentially be “leveraged for instruction,” such as in classroom contexts (Berland & Lee, 2011, p. 67).

Alex Baum | Submitted Photo

Alex Baum is a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan and a recent graduate of the School of Education and Social Policy, majoring in social policy and graduating with honors in 2015. Alex currently lives and works in New York City as a litigation legal assistant for Davis Polk & Wardwell, LLP.