For many generations, in the Eastern and Western parts of Europe, the development of educational concepts ran parallel without finding common ground. The later encounter, as some of the countries joined the European Union, has seen in many ways a superficial attempt to address the roots of the differences in style, practices, methods, and philosophy that keep somehow moving those parallel realities. Ilka Birova, Professor for Russia as a Second Language at the Sofia University, was one of the educationalists who was inspired to work with alternative systems in education for a long time.

In the discussion progress during the project, Ilka gave us perspectives and insight about sources that have remained unknown in western educational circles but play an essential role in advancing educational progress during periods in which there was very little or no contact between East and West, particularly concerning education. Due to the complexity, the issue remains ignored, and the obvious different approaches are said to be related to economic circumstances rather than to socio-cultural and ideological differences.
However, some of these approaches provide valuable information for building bridges that may allow us to find a common ground in education, especially in adult education.
In the following text, Ilka presents a variety of definitions and characterisations of games, using sources such as those by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, as well as her own reflections about learning games and playing. She is convinced that: 'A game … transforms education into live communication. The game is not an addition but a necessary component of learning systems for adults, an important element of present innovative educational technologies'
During the project, Ilka published a book for the promotion of the use of games in the teaching of Russian as a second language, with special mention of the Erasmus+ project Learning Games as an inspirational and motivational force for her work.

Definitions of Games and of Learning Games

The concept of a Game has multiple aspects. There are many different definitions of games and their features (especially in the sphere of education of adults) which include:

  • a kind of human activity
  • a means of education and learning about different subjects
  • a means of a social (language, psychological, intercultural) adaptation
  • a situational exercise (in training for instance)
  • 'an activity or sport in which people compete with each other according to agreed rules' (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 1995, p.581)
  • a human activity of dual character: on the one hand – the player does a real activity through real actions, and on the other hand, this activity has conditional character, there is some distance between real live situation and game situation. This duality of the game defines its developing character. (Dictionary of Psychology, L.Dessev, 1990, Sofia)
  • an instruments for teaching and education (R. Steiner; L.Vigotsky; D.Elkonin; New dictionary of methodological concepts E. Azimov, D. Shukin, Moscow, 2009). Vygotsky and Elkonin give a classification of games: subjective, creative and games with rules.
  • a basis for holistic education and not a partially used techniques or exercises  (G. Lozanov, Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedia; Gordon and Breach, New York, London, Paris, 1978)

Gamification is one of the main trends in present educational processes. I explored games as an educational activity of great importance in second language learning.
The definition of a game for language learning in adults (Ilka Birova) is:
A Game is an essential educational activity in the process of language learning. It is one of the forms of a teaching process organisation which transforms education into live communication. The game is not an addition, but a necessary component of learning systems for adults, an important element of present innovative educational technologies. In a teaching process, the game is realised through game technologies, educational games, playful exercises, techniques and specific organisation of lessons. Games develop language, communicative, cognitive and creative skills of the students. Games involve diversity in a teaching process and support students’ motivation.

Distinctions between learning games and other didactic activities

The advantages of learning games (Ilka Birova):
1) Information gap – usually there is an unknown element for a participant(s) in a game activity
2) Rules and time limits for each activity are obligatory
3) Emotional and intellectual challenges, positive emotional atmosphere, appropriate intellectual tension
4) Live interaction and communication
5) Games support student’s motivation in the learning process
6) Partnership and competitive character (competition is not obligatory)
7) The equal position of all participants, learning from each other
8) Creative character of game activities, the combination of language and other activities (drawing, singing, pantomime, gestures, etc.)
9) The combination between an individual input of each partner and group activity (discussion, exchanging of opinions, expressing points of view)
10) Freedom of expressing in-game activities, a choice is available

The educational value of learning games (Ilka Birova):

Through games we can develop many different skills in the education of adults, such as 
• oral and written skills about first/second/third language
• communicative skills and social communication
• cognitive skills and common knowledge
• cultural background and intercultural competence
• memory and concentration
• physical skills
• art skills

Learning games have a strong motivating effect on adult learners. In formal education (e.g. at a secondary and a high school) it is necessary to use learning games in combination with traditional learning methods and activities such as observation, discussion, explanation, and training exercises. In my teaching practice, I often use discussion games, role plays, simulative and didactic language games with the base of Russian as a second language for Bulgarian students at the University. The reactions of my students are predominantly positive.

Psychological aspects of games 

1) L.Vygotsky (Russian psychologists, XX century) on learning, 1934: Thought and Language [or Thinking and Speech]

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): Gap between what a learner can accomplish independently (the Zone of Current Development, ZCD) and what they can accomplish with assistance from a 'more knowledgeable other” (MKO) • “…what a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.' This is an interactive process: The ZCD and ZPD change over time; Independent practice is required to close the loop.
Vygotsky on Play and Learning: '…play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.'

2) D. Elkonin presents the idea of the importance of games for the psychological development of children in preschool age. He underlines not the biological but the social character of the game and its features like variability, imitation adult models, dynamics, pleasure, role as the main point in game activities. The dual character of games – on the one hand, an imaginary situation and on the other hand, a real play activity of the child. Games support the development of abstract thinking and social adaptation of children.

References:

Play and its role in the Mental Development of the Child (a paper)
https://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/1933/play.htm
First Published: 1933;
Source: Voprosy psikhologii, 1966, No. 6;
Translated: Catherine Mulholland;
Transcription/Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Online Version: Psychology and Marxism Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2002

D.Elkonin: The Psychology of Play
Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 43, no. 1, January–February 2005, pp. 11–21. © 2005 M.E. Sharpe, Inc.