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Making Educational Games for Kids, part 2

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

In part 1, I went over some of the design strategies I've used to make my games educational; in part 2, I'll go over how those strategies hit academic standards to bridge the gap between game and curriculum.


The Common Core standards are often a controversial topic in education. While I am not a fan of how they’ve been used (often as an arbitrary benchmark for “success” on standardized tests), I am a devoted fan of how they frame the skills and abilities necessary for kids to transition into the world as successful, confident adults. I design my games to help kids practice a number of educational standards, and transformed a role-playing experience into legitimate curriculum - one that counts towards home-school learning and is taught by a certified ELA instructor.

For a standard-by-standard breakdown of how I teach using games, read on!

 

WRITING NARRATIVES

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W. 3.3 - 6.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W. 3.4 - 6.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)

These two standards are the core of everything we do. I pre-load different prompts, such as ancient-looking pages from the Beast Encyclopaedia (name, habitat, abilities, life cycle) and journal excerpts (“dear diary …”), but work with kids to decide what kind of story they would most like to write. Dialogue and description come not just through independent work, but through inspiration – when kids hear each other’s work, they get pushed to try out different strategies and excited to attempt different kinds of stories. We work with first person and third person, how to structure dialogue, paragraph breaks, and work with appropriate margins and font size, and all sorts of different approaches to evocative and engaging language use.

 

EDITING AND REVISING

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W. 3.5 - 6.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1-3 up to and including grade 6 here.)

I was asked recently in a podcast interview about “direct” instruction – in essence, how did I explicitly teach particular strategies? This comes from a concept in education called “gradual release” – an approach where a teacher begins by modeling a skill (“I do”), then guiding kids though it (“we do”), then letting them practice on their own (“we do”). In my classes, the “you do” happens between classes, but the rest is “we do!” We talk through each story and discuss how it combines with the rest – if a particular twist doesn’t suit the narrative, how can we keep the best parts and make it work?

But here’s my secret: there is direct instruction going on. Whenever I read a story aloud, I’m editing it, discussing the choices with the kids (“You’ve got two stand-alone sentences here – do you want to connect them with a semicolon or a dash? Comma doesn’t work without an ‘and’ or a ‘but!’”), and even, sometimes, making an extra slide as a reminder (we often have a “their/they’re/there” slide, and one for compound sentences). The key is that the editing isn’t a judgement – it’s just part of the process, which is exactly what it should be. No-one is evaluated; we’re just working together to make the story flow, make sense, and sound and feel right.

 

ONLINE PUBLISHING and PRESENTATION

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W. 3.6 - 6.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.

This standard starts with basic online editing and collaboration, moving up to more typing skills. I use Google Slides with students, and they learn basic composition, copy-paste, typing, how to create and edit text fields, insert new slides, and more. Their typing skills improve as they work after class (and during, as we take “writing breaks” sometimes) on their stories, adding characters, creatures, and more. We talk about margins and white-space, title size, and other basics of layout. Often, they get very sophisticated about making layered images into “collage”-style illustrations to help them depict their ideas.

We also use Google Sheets, and students develop proficiency adding rows and deleting them as we modify their characters. I also show them how to create in-cell drop-down lists – one of my goals is to not just help my kids play games, but create them and run them for each other. All my students retain access to the slides decks, and I’ve had many send me their own games (a Warriors game, based on the novels about clans of feral cats, a sci-fi spinoff of my Rimworlds game, and more!).

 

SPEAKING, DISCUSSION, and COLLABORATION

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL. 3.1 - 6.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

This is almost the entirety of the game experience. Kids are always trying to figure out what to do and how to do it, arguing about whether to look for more information, use brawn or speed to solve a problem, or try to persuade characters to change their minds. Learning to work together is key to succeeding: who has the best abilities for dealing with this problem? Can someone else do something to help out, adding a die to the roll and making success more likely?

There are also the larger collaborative conversations we have about story – what elements has each written into the plot, world, and their character’s background? How can those elements combine? Which need to be edited or revised slightly, and how can we do that without offending or attacking the author’s original intention? Learning to share a story, which is often something very personal, and negotiate to make a plot in a collaborative way is highly rewarding, but a very high level skill.

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