Building a Class Out of Games

For instructors who are new to teaching with games, it can be
challenging to figure out how to build a cohesive class which teaches
specific techniques or concepts. So I thought it would be useful to
share how I plan and organize my own classes.

My classes usually consist of a warm-up, one basic game, 1-2 complex
games, and some free fencing. When planning a class I’ll start with a
theme or focus, pick games to go with it, and think a little about how
I expect the class to progress and problems that might come up along
the way. The rest I figure out on the fly.

The basic games are things like Direct Attack, Soviet Foil, Finnish
Chicken, and their variants. They are mostly focused on fundamental
abilities like distance and timing, and serve to help students get
mentally engaged at the start of class. We do a few short rounds of
the simple game, changing partners each round. Since we have a small
set which we play regularly, the students are familiar with them and
we can run through them pretty quickly without much introduction or

The complex games form the main part of the class and are chosen to
fit the the topic of the week, usually focusing on a particular
tactical situation or some specific techniques. I usually start with a
short intro to the topic, then introduce/demo the game, in more or
less detail depending on whether we’ve played it recently. (This
by Jack has some tips on how to introduce and set up games).
Then we split up into pairs or groups of three to play the game.

After playing the game for a while, we take a break to debrief and
discuss it. We talk about what strategies and techniques the students
were using, what worked well, and what problems they were having. Then
we try to generate solutions for those problems, and come up with new
strategies to try. This is also a good time to make connections to the
theme of the lesson or any important concepts that apply. Ideally the
students will do most of the talking here, especially at the beginning
when we’re sharing observations. I tend to jump in more toward the end
to help with solutions and new strategies.

Sometimes I have a specific goal in mind with the game, such as a
technique or strategy that I want the class practicing. In that case,
I can use the discussion to guide them in that direction. Otherwise
we’ll explore whatever situations and problems arise during
play. Either way, I try to wrap up the discussion by suggesting
something to focus on for the next round. Then we play again so they
have a chance to try things out.

Alternating between playing a game and discussing it works really well
for developing tactical and problem-solving skills. But introducing
new techniques or actions can take a little bit of extra work. This
isn’t a big problem for me because my curriculum doesn’t depend on
learning things in a specific order, and in most classes my goal isn’t
to teach a particular technique. Instead, I’ll introduce a technique
when I think it will solve an immediate problem for the class. Often
I’ll go into a class with some techniques in mind, but if they don’t
come up, or I end up doing a different technique, that’s fine too.

When I do introduce new techniques, I teach them in a pretty
traditional way – with direct instruction, demonstration, and a bit
of cooperative drilling. But I only do this long enough for people to
get a rough idea, maybe five minutes of class time. Then I go back to
the game so the students can practice in a more representative
environment. If someone has the prerequisites to perform a technique,
and it solves their problem, they can usually make it work in a game
pretty quickly, and there’s a good chance it will stick in their

On the occasions where I am planning a class around a specific
technique, I try to find a game that’s designed to focus on or elicit
it (like Electric Buckler, Get to the Chopper, and Head vs Short). At
minimum, I’ll pick a game which is likely to set up a good tactical
situation for the technique. Then if I’m lucky, the students will
figure it out either through experimentation, or by imitating each
other, and all I have to do is attach a name to the thing they’re
already doing. Otherwise, I’ve at least created a good opportunity for
introducing the technique explicitly.

So to sum up, my basic approach is:

  • Pick games that fit the theme of the class
  • Alternate between play and discussion
  • Use discussion to guide the class to better strategies and teach
    important concepts
  • Introduce new techniques as problem-solving tools

This does require a certain amount of flexibility. I often have to
improvise a little to guide the class toward the topics I want to
cover, and some classes go off in unexpected directions. But I think
that responsiveness to the students’ needs is beneficial, and is a big
strength of the ecological approach.