Cait Curley, school psychologist and founder at Never Board Learning, joins the podcast to talk a little Wordle, her belief that almost all of school can be fun and games, and the academic power of gamification.

Most of us acknowledge that children learn through play, but the power of games continues well beyond elementary school. Middle schoolers and high schoolers build creativity and problem solving skills through playing games (especially board games) along their entire educational journey.

The Basics of Play-Based Learning

Play-based learning simply means learning through play. Play-based learning, or gameschooling, is a type of learning that is essential for a student’s development.

“The research has shown that not only does play benefit the whole child, meaning physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, but it doesn't end at a certain point,” Cait says. “There's no play developmental window.”

Cait’s speciality is learning through board games and card games. As a homeschool parent, educator, and psychologist, she advocates for families and classrooms to incorporate game play into their academics.

Game Play Frequency

The beauty of games is that they can be as formal or informal as your academic plan. The Curley family plays games at least once a day, and even intermittent gameplay can strengthen a child's development.

“When you are playfully and joyfully learning those facts and the information, the conversations you have, in the play that you're having together, stick more than they would otherwise,” Cait says. 

Her boys went through an obsessive play phase with Memoir ‘44, a World War Two-themed board game, and absorbed and retained an incredible amount of knowledge about the WWII era. 

“It's because they were interested in it when it was presented to them,” she says.

Game Play Theory

Two tiers of learning occur when playing a board game. On one level, you are learning to play the game itself. On another level, you are developing transferable skills in logic, inference, probability, language arts, and trial-and-error, among many other strategies.

Playing Wordle, for example, is educational. Not only does Wordle teach you to play Wordle itself (the importance of the first word guess and likely letter combinations), but it also teaches valuable language arts knowledge that comes from conversing about language (vocabulary, usage, and letter frequency).

Getting Serious With Games

Aside from the fact that play-based learning is developmentally appropriate at every academic stage, it is also especially socially appropriate with preteens and teens.

To counter the academic pressures of junior high and high school with family games is “magic,” Cait says.

As a school psychologist, she played games with older children in order to create emotional rapport. With eyes and hands focused on the game pieces and mind and speech engaged with another person, the game posture fosters conversation and confidentiality.

Play-based learning, much like education itself, can be a long process. “But once you've been doing it for a while, you see countless examples of how your children have learned skills,” Cait says.

What game should your family play? Any game a student is interested in outweighs an educational-specific game. That goes for video games, too. 

Connecting with a child about their interests, whether that’s Scrabble or Call of Duty, shows them that their interests are valuable and important. That validation alone is probably enough to develop your children’s eagerness in more game play.

Action Steps for Parents and Educators

1 — Learn More About Gamification

If you aren’t yet persuaded that games matter, Cait recommends reading Stuart Brown’s book Play.  

If you’re a classroom educator, get in touch with the support staff in your school system. Speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and school psychologists are already using games and will want to help you do it, too.

2 — Get Some Games and Play Them

Cait recommends numerous games and resources that range in complexity and duration. Here are just a few:

  • Classic games: Cards (check out the Bicycle website), Monopoly, Sorry
  • Word games: Scrabble, Bananagrams, Wordle, Word on the Street
  • Tabletop games: Cloaked Cats, Memoir ‘44, Dominion

While many games are highly affordable with a long “shelf life,” some can be more selective in expense or playable niche. Cait suggests trying a game before you buy it and to invest with years of play in mind. 

Looking for more game ideas? Check out our STEM Gift Guide, a list of educational and challenging gifts for your student, from the instructors and mathematicians at Art of Problem Solving. 

3 — Stay Curious

When adults model enthusiasm toward play, children learn to value games, too. 

“Pursue your own interests,” Cait says to parents. “Even if you fail — especially if you fail — and have fun or a sense of humor doing it, you're teaching your child how to pursue curiosity and lifelong learning. That's the end game no matter what type of education you're doing right now.”

Guest Links 

Recommended Resources

  1. A library card. Your public library is one of the best places to ignite curiosity and dive down rabbit holes. The library contains more than "just" books, too.
  2. Open-ended toys. The best toys are the ones that are open to interpretation: blocks, dress-up clothes, puppets or figurines, art supplies, and the legendary cardboard box!
  3. Community support. Find others who embrace play-based learning. You’re invited to join the fun in the Never Board Learning community.


This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

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Episode Transcript

Cait Curley Q&A [2:11]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Cait Curley, school psychologist and founder of Never Board Learning, joins the podcast to talk a little Wordle, her belief that almost all of school can be fun and games, and the academic power of gamification. To kick us off, can you give us a high level overview on play-based learning AKA game schooling?

Cait Curley: Sure. Play-based learning is a type of learning that is essential for child development and I think that a lot of us know that. However, the research has shown that not only does play benefit the whole child, meaning the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, but it doesn't end at a certain point. There's no play developmental window. So it's good for teenagers and it's also good for big kids like us. And game schooling is something that I especially adore and am passionate about because while I value all forms of play, as a homeschool parent and an educator, using board games feels safer and something that's easier to make count for those year-end evaluations than say right now it's 65 in New Hampshire and my kids are playing in the mud. That's valuable too, but how do you count that in an academic way? So I'm a huge advocate for game schooling when people want to add more play-based learning into their day, but maybe they're a little nervous about it because of all the other things they're juggling, all the other balls and academic skills that they'd like to cover.

Eric Olsen: Count me in that camp. And I've heard you mention how you believe school can be almost all fun and games. Give us some examples of what a game-heavy curriculum looks like and where the exceptions might lie.

Cait Curley: Sure. Game schooling varies by family. There are families who are very unschoolery and they may play games exclusively and not worry about recording any of it. They just trust the process. There are people who homeschool once a day, once a week, once a month. Some people do six weeks on, six weeks off. Our family aims to play at least one time a day, often more than that. But what I mean when I say homeschooling can be almost all fun and games is that when you are playfully learning and joyfully learning, those facts and the information, the conversations you have and the play that you're having together sticks more than it would otherwise.

I always share the example of a couple years ago, my boys were really into Memoir '44, which is a World War II game. And they were obsessed and they played it all the time. They still do actually, but they know more about World War II now... And this was a few years ago now, but they're 13 and 10, and they know more about World War II than I knew in high school, and I was a good student. And it's just because that was that sweet spot. And they will sit down and talk to my father-in-law at length. And he just loves it so much. And it's because they were interested in it when it was presented to them.

Can gaming really teach students transferable skills? [5:07]

Eric Olsen: Yeah, you've teased this a couple times now with this concept of they're learning more about World War II than I did. You also mentioned this concept of people who like game schooling like board games, because it feels more real. It feels like a more authentic way to learn. Let's talk about assessment. How do we know if students are actually learning transferable skills or if they're simply learning how to win a game, if they're learning game theory. For myself, I've thought about this recently because someone asked me if I think Wordle is actually educational and I immediately defended "of course it is. It feels educational. It feels like I'm probably learning language skills, probably learning vocabulary, albeit five letter max words." But am I? Or am I just learning how to beat Wordle? How do you separate game theory learning, which is valuable in itself, from broader transferable skills?

Cait Curley: So you're definitely learning both, but I will say we are a Wordle family also and the conversations that happen... So sure, you're learning the probability of what letters are... Your first word is so important, and what letters work well together, and you are focusing on five letter words. So it's not this huge vocabulary that you're gaining. However, the conversations we've had about it, I know recently they had ultra as a word and is that even a word? There was some controversy there. So we had a whole conversation about that. And then one day it was knoll, which is not a word that my younger two had even heard of before. And we had a whole conversation about regional use of language and how some words go in and out of vogue and where you might have heard it. It might have been Lord of the Rings was where my oldest said he remembered reading it in. So there's a lot of learning that goes beyond the trying to figure out that perfect five letter combination.

Eric Olsen: Yeah, JFK grassy knoll, is the anecdote? I gave that for my daughter as well. Okay, so you mentioned about how it's for little kids, it's for big kids like us. Maybe I buy into the concept that, Cait's clever here, games are a good way to trick the little ones into learning when they're young, but Cait, they're older now. It's time to get serious. What age should we stop with all the fun and games and get into serious, serious learning?

Cait Curley: I love this question because so many people worry when your kids reach middle school, high school, because our culture just puts so much pressure on the academics and trying to get from point A to point B. I would argue that playing games with your children is more important during the teen years than it is even in the early years, because they are going to pull away from you. It's developmentally appropriate. But I find, and this goes back to before I was a mom and I was working as a school psychologist. I used to play games with my students all the time, especially my middle school schoolers and high schoolers, because there's something magic about being engaged in something with your hands and avoiding eye contact, that a child or teen will speak more about things that are bothering them.

And you are also building a connection. So even if they're in the awkward teen stage, I have one right now, I know how it is, you are making this connection. My son and I have been playing Scrabble nonstop since Christmas. And even when he's moody about who knows what, we still can sit down and play. And I think that's hugely important and something that's often overlooked because our society is so hell-bent on the academics and getting the good scores. But in that, they're also learning. And I know that it's hard to trust that process. It's a long game, much like homeschooling, much like many alternate forms of education. But once you've been doing it for a while, you see countless examples of how your children have learned skills.

Are some games more educational than others? [8:58]

Eric Olsen: So Scrabble with your son since Christmas, it is funny. If you told me you've been playing Scrabble with your son since Christmas, or you told me you've been playing Call of Duty every night with your son since Christmas, one sounds better than the other, but is it?

Cait Curley: I'm not a video gamer, although I support all forms of games. That's a whole other story, my son was afraid of television for a series of years, which is not something that's common, so we're late to the screen game over here. But you're still connecting and there are tons of educational video games on the market right now. In my community, people are always sharing... And I hope you've heard of Global, too.

That's not a video game, but that's another good one. But you're connecting with your child and you are taking in interest in what they are interested in. So it might not be something that you would love, but you are showing them that their interests are valuable and important. And that's huge.

Is gameschooling easier for at-home learners than for traditional classrooms? [10:00]

Eric Olsen: You mentioned you try to work in at least one game a day into your schedule that has some flex in it. Can game schooling work in a traditional classroom or is it only for, or easiest for, at home learning families?

Cait Curley: I think it is easier for families who are homeschooling only because of the time factor. When I worked in schools, there are definitely... And actually I can recall from my own education, having teachers who are game heavy. Right now with the focus on testing and especially now during the pandemic where there's so much focus on learning loss, I think these things get cast aside, but there are teachers who are incredibly creative that are using games daily and play daily, gamification of the classroom. There's so much cool stuff out there right now. And probably the biggest users of games in the school system are the support staff. So the speech and language therapists, the school psychologists, the occupational therapists. They're great people to talk to too if you are an educator and you're looking to work a little bit more play into your traditional school day.

What our the most important games to have in our closet if we want to get into gameschooling? [11:07]

Eric Olsen: You name dropped a couple of games that you like already. Let's talk about game inventory. Maybe give us a handful, if we're new to the game schooling concept, and we want to fill our linen closet with some board games to have in our collections. And maybe your suggestions for... I know you document your games by the learning skills and subjects covered in them. Give us a handful of recommendations for starting off our collection.

Cait Curley: Because it's so unique, a lot of people think of board games, they think back to their own childhood. And you may think of Monopoly and Sorry, and you may or may not have strong feelings about that. But the gaming world is like the book world and there are so many different genres. So I would first and foremost encourage families to try games before they buy them. You can visit libraries, game cafes, friends, before you even invest, because they can be really expensive. But some very basic, easy, fun to play games that have high learning value... Yahtzee, we often refer to it as an old lady game, because we always play with elderly relatives, but kids love shaking that cup. And there is a ton of math in that. Cribbage, same thing. Scrabble I already mentioned. Upwords is language arts with a little bit of flexible thinking. Bananagrams is a similar type of game, but it's not as expensive.

Cait Curley: I like to look for games that are going to last your family for a number of years and not just this age that the kids are at. It's hard when you have teeny tiny kids, but as the kids get elementary age and beyond, you want something that you're going to invest in that is going to be worth its value. And depending on what you like, there are lots of choices there. Another good language arts game for littles is Word on the Street or Word on the Street Junior. That's another fun one. It's really hard for me to pick favorites because I'm a little bit game obsessed and there's so many choices. But as far as inventory and recording, you can go on the board game stats app if you're a real statistician. Much more than just what games you have played, but streaks and scores and winning and your inventory. There's also a free app called Seesaw that classroom teachers use that's great for recording. Or you could just do a pencil and paper log and inventory, which is something I did for years over here.

Eric Olsen: Love the short list of recommendations. Finally Cait, leave us with some next steps advice for parents listening, looking to figure out how to add some play into their students school day. Where should they start?

Cait Curley: Sure, so the first thing I would say is that to either read Stuart Brown's book or watch his TED Talk, which is one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time, and it will change your feelings on play no matter what they are. And the second thing that I would say is that you don't need a huge closet in order to add more play to your homeschool day or your academic day. You can get a deck of cards or two decks of cards and you can head to the Bicycle website. They also have a free app called the How to Play app and you can filter at the top of the screen by number of players, ages of players, things like that. And you could be playing card games and not repeat them for a very long time. There's a lot of nostalgia there and you'll discover some that you forgot about. All the rules are there. It's very straightforward and a lot of fun and it's not going to cost you a lot at all.

Download AoPS’ Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook [14:35]

Eric Olsen: Something else that isn't going to cost a lot, in fact it's free. It's Art of Problem Solving's brand new Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook. It's full of helpful strategies to support and challenge advanced learners, curriculum recommendations straight from our Art of Problem Solving families, our STEM gift guide, free resource recommendations, and much, much more. It's the perfect next step to help you navigate and build an educational plan that's right for your family. Download our Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook for free today.

Cait Curley Rapid Fire [15:15]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Cait, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Cait Curley: Inequity because while every child is entitled to a free and appropriate education, we all know that it varies by zip code. And I think that's appalling.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Cait Curley: about it now, I don't regret being a school psychologist, but what I'm doing now day-to-day, podcasting, having a website, having a membership. Those things, even what we're doing right now didn't even exist when I was trying to figure out at 18 what I wanted to be for the rest of my life.

Eric Olsen: I think forest ranger was my seventh grade assessment test. I was excited about that one, to land that way. I think I chose marketing because I think I had in my head that you could golf during your job as a marketer. Hasn't happened once 20 years into the career.

Cait Curley: That's a shame. That's some play-based learning right there.

Eric Olsen: Exactly. What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Cait Curley: Higher ed. I think that it's ridiculous that you're sending an 18 year old off to spend or incur so much debt over a job that they may or may not love or do for very long. So I really hope that bubble bursts so that it's more accessible and realistic for teens and early twenties.

Eric Olsen: And finally, what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Cait Curley: I would say just be curious about the world around you. Ask questions, take time to answer the questions and pursue your own interests even if you fail, especially if you fail, and have as much fun or sense of humor doing it, because you're teaching your child how to pursue curiosity and lifelong learning. And that's what we want. That's the end game, no matter what type of education you're doing right now.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Cait, thanks so much for joining us today.

Cait Curley: Thanks so much for having me.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [17:41]

Eric Olsen: Isn't Cait fun? Really helpful and really convicting for me as someone who probably over indexes on making sure we're getting the STEM fields in for my daughter. But a great reminder that I really need to make sure she's having fun and make sure we're having fun together. It's so important to make all the other stuff work. So how can we sneak more play into our students' school day? I have a few new ideas and a few new games to buy and I hope you do too. And may you continue your journey alongside us raising the great problem solvers of the next generation.

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