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How Making Board Games Can Lead to Real Classroom Innovation

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How Making Board Games Can Lead to Real Classroom Innovation
Pieces can be designed from pipe cleaners, erasers, or toothpicks. Game engines can be simple like dice or cards or can be more complex.

If creativity is intelligence having fun, then creating a board game is intelligence at play.

One of my favorite units for the 7th grade class I teach is the Board Game Design unit. When my assistant principal walked into my class, though, she was skeptical. The kids had played board games in order to dissect what makes a board game worth playing. We inspected the components, from pieces to boards to boxes to the game engines themselves. Monopoly, Life, Sorry, Clue, and Chutes and Ladders were among the games we studied. Her response was not favorable and, as anyone who knows the environment of teaching these days, my rating was not highly effective.

What’s a teacher to do? Close the door and teach? Or dig into the ample research that support play as an active way of learning?  I chose to do both.

After the game study, groups of students are given Challenges and Values — what the game’s obstacles must be and what the player has to achieve to win. Together the groups then design pieces, a board, select a game engine from dice, cards, or even an Arduino spinner, and write rules for their game play. Documenting the class experience I delved into that mountain of research and wrote a ten page response to her evaluation of the unit.

I was able to convince my assistant principal to allow me to keep the board game unit in my curriculum (my evaluation did not change). However, she did suggest I shorten the unit from three weeks to one. I see my students twice a week; that is 90 minutes to study, conceive, and design a board game. I compromised and made it two and half weeks long, giving students extra after school time to work on their boards.

Could this be done in a hack-a-thon setting? I think it very much lends itself to a pressured creative process. The Serious Game movement, which I first learned about from MOUSE Corp, takes the idea of a social issue and puts it front and center for the board game theme. Goals like social equality, justice, and happiness are winning values. Obstacles like war, access to basic goods, and dishonesty are challenges to reach those goals.

Use these cards to inspire board game brainstorming.

The “Grow a Game Apprentice Edition” pack of cards is very helpful in generating the basis for brainstorming board game ideas. When students or board game hackers have to come up with a way to pair freedom of expression and violence, the wheels turn.

Once the idea for a game is born, the building, or the fun, really starts. Use construction paper or graph paper to design a paper prototype. Tooth picks, pipe cleaners, erasers, or play dough can be used to design pieces. The decision of a game engine to move the game along is critical. Many students are very well aware of game engines in video games but don’t realize that they’ve been around since the first game was invented.

In the end, a play off in a classroom or at a hack-a-thon can showcase the designers’ hard work. Winners can reiterate their board game using more sturdy materials or find a makerspace where they can use a laser cutter to create a version of their board game on a real board.  Giving students or young designers the challenge to create a board game is hard fun at its finest.



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Lori Stahl-Van Brackle was, until September 1, 2016, a Computer Talent teacher in a New York City public middle school. Before she was a teacher she was a journalist and in 1995 created her first Web site for the magazine where she was on staff. She's been excited by digital making ever since. As a teacher she inspired her students to use computers as creative tools and make instead of just consume. She has used open-source programs like Scratch, hacked board-games, and had her students create 3D printed projects. Now she is serving as the Director of Instructional Technology for the Manhattan Field Support Center/NYCDOE. In this role she hopes to help other teachers use technology in their classrooms in creative ways to help engage their students.

View more articles by Lori Stahl-Van Brackle
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