It’s All Fun and Games: Building Student Engagement
August 18, 2021
Recently my 11-year-old niece beat me in a game of Santorini. I won’t lie, that moment was a though pill to swallow. I am a fully-grown, intelligent human being who has been to college and worked in a professional capacity for over a decade. And I lost to an 11-year-old girl. Yeah, that stung.
Once I’d soothed my wounded pride however, I realized something interesting. For those of you who don’t know, Santorini is a board game that’s all about building towers. The goal is to outmaneuver your opponent while simultaneously building toward your own success (think chess meets Lincoln Logs). The game compels players to develop spatial awareness, forethought, and engineering skills if they hope to succeed, and my niece had done so in a very short amount of time. The simple mechanics of a game had helped her develop a growth mindset.
It’s Time to Play
By now, most educators have realized the benefit of using games to help students learn. But how do we apply the mechanics of a game to our broader lesson plans? After all, not everything can be taught through a game of Monopoly or Dutch Blitz. A good place to begin is by recognizing that all games share fundamental elements which make them engaging:
- A compelling goal or destination
- A set of rules or challenges that must be overcome
- A clear indicator of where you are against your goal
These elements create an authentic motivation to learn that is driven by a desire to reach a goal. Learning feels natural and fun. Repetition is not seen as monotonous, but rather, it is embraced as the quickest way to master skills and bring you closer to a goal. Feedback is ongoing and immediate so that progress is rewarded, and setbacks have tangible consequences.
Setting Up the Board
Here are just a few ways you can apply these mechanics to lessons in your classroom:
- Make Learning a Destination: Giving students a destination to aim for lets them explore different possibilities and helps create a flexible mindset. In the Blue Apple project, High Energy, students are tasked with finding ways to reduce their school’s energy usage. By giving them the opportunity to investigate on their own, students can come up with different ideas for saving power (ex. Using devices that require less electricity, changing the architecture, etc.) Remember, learning doesn’t have to be a straight line.
- Provide Rules: Every good game needs rules. In the same way, setting boundaries can also help direct your students as they learn. In the game Fish Out of Water, students are tasked with building a device which helps them to catch fish from a pond. The twist? Each piece of equipment has a price and students have a limited supply of money. This not only requires students to think critically and creatively, but it also creates an opening for you to discuss issues like microloans and economics as a class.
- Indicate Progress: Many games have indicators which tell the player how far they’ve come. Maybe it’s how many stars they’ve collected or how high their level is. Showing students how far they’ve come is a great way to maintain engagement and keep them motivated as they learn. Consider using reflection journals at the end of each lesson so students can record their thoughts and observations. These journals can serve as a physical record, reminding students of just how much they’ve accomplished since they started.
All Players Ready!
The single biggest indication of learning is engagement. The more we can increase engagement, the more we can increase learning. So, lets always be on the lookout for things that engage our students, and prepare to apply these principles to our instruction. The new year will be full of opportunities, so let the games begin!