Strategy Games for the Upper Elementary Classroom

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My 5th grade teacher taught every student in our classroom how to play chess. Whenever we had any extra time, we got a chance to play this strategy game with a partner. It was so much fun, that we didn't realize all of the problem solving and logical thinking skills we were developing at the time!
strategy games and problem solving games for the upper elementary classroom (3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade)

When I got my first teaching job, I had high hopes for integrating a strategy game like chess into my 4th grade classroom. However, I soon became overwhelmed with the daily demands of classroom management, standards based teaching, and paperwork. Taking the time out of my regular classroom day to teach a complicated game like chess was just wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, teachers nowadays don't really have any freedom in their schedule to teach things like chess.  But students are missing out - strategy games are a fun way for students to learn skills like problem solving, strategic thinking, patience, delayed gratification, concentration, making predictions, and more.

Chess is a complex game that takes a while to master - time that teachers rarely have.  Luckily, there are plenty of strategy games out there that can help develop critical thinking skills in students - yet have simple instructions that do not take much time to explain - and make it harder for students to accuse their fellow students of cheating.  These games can be used as early finisher activities, indoor recess games, or for things like "Fun Fridays."

Below are some of my favorite strategy games with simple, easy-to-understand instructions for the classroom.

Problem Solving Games From Maranda Games

If you are ever in Brevard, North Carolina, make sure you stop by O.P. Taylor's Toy Store.  It's a huge, interactive toy store with so many fun and novelty toys!  It was there that I was first introduced to Maranda Games, and since then I have bought 6 of their games.

I love them because they are everything I'm looking for in a game, especially in a game that I want for the classroom.  On the back of some of their boxes, they say:

"Games ought to be fun and easy to learn.  Depth of strategy should evolve from the creativity of the players, as opposed to the complexity of the rules.  Strategy games should have minimal set up time and resolve into a clear victory.  Our strategy games are designed to minimize elements of chance and avoid ties or stalemates..."

Everything you need for a good classroom game!

The 3 games below are the ones that I think are best for the classroom.

In this game, each player is trying to create a path across the game board while also preventing the opposing player from making a path.  It's simple, yet requires a lot of planning and strategy.

Players can "trap" the pieces of other players by surrounding the piece on both sides.  If you trap an opposing player's game piece, then they are required to remove the piece from the game board.

Buy this game here.

 This is the first game I bought from Maranda Games.  It's simple enough to play with 4 year olds yet requires enough strategy that adults enjoy it as well.

This is a 2 player game.  Each player gets 8 three dimensional pieces.  If put together correctly, the 16 pieces will make a 4 x 4 x 4 cube.  The object of the game is to force your opponent to play a piece outside of the 4 x 4 x 4 boundary.

This game moves pretty quickly, but it's fun to play over and over.  It requires strategy and spatial awareness.

Best of all, the pieces can also be used with only one person to create certain patterns.

My friend bought this for her kids off of Amazon and said the pieces were of low quality.  She returned it and it was replaced at no charge and better quality pieces.

Buy this game here.

This is 4 in a row with a twist!  Students must get 4 in a row vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, but the game board is a circle.  Explaining the instructions to students is simple and quick.

Buy this game here!

Traditional Games From Other Cultures

These games go way, way back and have origins in a variety of cultures.  The best thing about using traditional games is that the game board and the rules are usually very simple, yet still require strategy.  This makes it great for the classroom!

Since these games are old, they haven't really been mass produced (with the exception of Mancala).  Some of the games I found online were handmade and expensive.  Luckily several of these games are simple and can be played with a simple printable!

When possible, I've linked to a place where you can buy this game if you want a sturdier version, as well a to place where you can download a free printable for your students.

This game reminds me of Quadefy, one of the games listed above.  The game board is a plexiglass frame that players drop irregular shapes into.  The goal is to force your opponent to the the first player to drop a piece that doesn't fit in the plexiglass.

Simple instruction and quick to play -   Buy it here!

This game is a little more complicated then the other games on this list, but since it was my absolutely favorite strategy game growing up I had to include it!  This game is easier to learn by playing it.  Students can learn the rules and play for free online here.

Or, buy the board game here!

  • Achi 

This game originated in Ghana.  It is a slightly more complicated version of Tic-Tac-Toe that doesn't always end in a tie.

This two player game requires a game board and 4 counters for each person.  The object is to get 3 in a row.  It's played just like Tic-Tac-Toe, except players only have 4 counters.  After all the counters have been played, each player can move one of their counters to an adjacent empty spot on the game board.  This continues until somebody gets 3 in a row!

Download a free printable version of this game here.

This is another, more fun version of Tic-Tac-Toe.  It requires a board game and 9 counters for each player.

Like in Tic-Tac-Toe, players are trying to get 3 of their counters in a row - this is called a 'mill.'  When a player gets 3 counters in a row, they get to remove one of their opponents counters from the game board.

Once all the counters have been played, players continue to play by taking turns sliding one of their counters to an empty, adjacent spot.  To win, a player must remove all but 2 of their opponent's counters.

Download a free printable version of this game here.

This is one version of a game in the "Tafl" branch of board games.  These games are all have opponents of unequal sizes, so the players will have completely different strategies.

In Fox and Geese, 1 player has 17 "geese" pieces and the other player has only 1 "fox" piece.  The geese all start on one side of the game board, while the fox starts in the middle.

The geese are trying to trap the fox so that he can no longer move.  The fox is trying to remove as many geese from the game board (by jumping them like in checkers) so that he cannot be trapped.  Geese cannot jump.

This game does not always have a clear ending.  It might be hard for upper elementary students to concede victory to their opponent, especially if they are the geese.  However, if the game continues with very little chance of the fox being trapped, then the fox has won.

You can download a free game board and read about variations on this game here.

This game uses the same board as Fox and Geese, but it can be played by yourself.  You start with counters in every spot except for the middle spot.  Then, you "jump" counters and removed the jumped counter from the game board.  The object is to have only one counter left on the game board.

The challenge comes in that you can not move any of the counters unless you are jumping another counter.

Students can play online here.

What problem solving or strategy games do your students love?

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