Computational Thinking


In the preface to their Exploring Computational Thinking collection, Google defines computational thinking as a “problem solving process.” Computational thinkers take a problem and break it down into smaller sections, then resolve each section in a particular order t o get a desired outcome. It requires planning, pattern recognition, and learning how to operate within certain boundaries (what you can do, how you can do it, what resources you have on hand, etc.).

It’s worth pausing to note that while there is plenty of overlap, computational thinking is different from the scientific method or critical thinking because of its focus on process and predetermined outcome. It’s sort of like the difference between scientists, academics, and engineers: scientists and academics study, engineers build. Their methods have similar processes but they’re shaped by different goals.

Computational thinking is emerging as a cornerstone in STEM education. As its name implies, it’s a good skill to have in the information age, and tech companies in particular value it for how readily it translates into programming. The same basic approach of breaking down a big problem and finding solutions piece-by-piece can be applied across any curriculum: it’s a core tenet of outlining a paper, solving mathematical equations, building a bot, or drawing a picture.

Now let’s consider what makes board games an ideal tool for teaching computational thinking.

Board games…

  • …rely a lot on planning your next move (whether it’s competitive like Machi Koro or collaborative like Mechs vs. Minions)
  • …often revolve around recognizing patterns (like spotting which cities will be infected in the next Pandemic outbreak)
  • …require you to operate within certain boundaries (rules of the game, what materials you have to work with, what you’re allowed to know going in, etc.)
  • …often involve breaking a bigger problem down into smaller, more manageable ones (Escape the Room-type games tend to be really good at this)


It’s not just newer games that do this! Even old stalwarts like Chess and Monopoly can teach the basics of computational thinking. And lest you think this is all kid stuff: The CIA has been using board games to train its analysts for years. They even have their own version of Pandemic. Other government agencies and private businesses have also realized the value of board games for training and teambuilding, leading to a huge uptick in escape rooms and corporate game libraries.

The important thing is that your library—whether it’s in a school or a secret government base on the moon—has a good stock of board games to choose from. Sure, something like Tsuro is about running your opponents off the board, but the real value of the game is the lessons you learned (and applied) along the way.


Article by Ben Blythe
You can find Ben on Twitter @FlailingWriter. He's also got a blog on WordPress. And he even reviews things on GoodReads!
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