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 discussion.

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 article 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 repertoire.

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.