April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Some Ideas for Fall Play: Ease into the new school year with games that facilitate social interaction | The Gaming Life

Every fall, students return to school a little unsure of what to expect from their classes and their peers. For younger children, excitement mingles with fear. Many middle and high school students find that the summer break has weakened the social structure that wields a mighty influence on their lives and are somewhat open to redefining these social boundaries.

This presents an opportunity for educators to re-introduce students to their learning environment and to each other. Many of us are all too familiar with some of the traditional strategies to help introduce new groups that will be working together. One of the worst ways to achieve this goal is the game “Get to Know You Social Bingo.” This game and others similar to it are prone to two shortcomings. First, they often provide merely a superficial introduction to one’s peers. While this may offer a starting point for conversation, the experience itself usually doesn’t provide an opportunity for immediate reflection and exploration. Also, these activities often feel disingenuous and contrived in their efforts which can encumber the goals of building teamwork, understanding, and respect among the students.

As an alternative, there are game designs that incorporate the social interactions of the students as part of play. These games require that the students work together and reflect on their understanding of the other players throughout the game. Add to this the inclusion of the social literacy elements in AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner and the new Common Core Standards and you have a resource that not only sets a tone of cooperation and engagement, but also addresses classroom needs.

Elementary school

Games that build trust and facilitate social interaction through collaborative problem solving are a good way to ease younger students into the new school year. These games generally fall into the cooperative genre of games and require students to work together in an effort to overcome challenges presented within the game environment. Throughout play, younger students begin to feel part of a team as their turn helps contribute to the overall progress of the group.

SLJ1110w_Gaming_MAXMax (Family Pastimes) is an excellent example of a cooperative game for younger students. In the board game, the players work together to help three wild animals get back to their home in the tree before Max, the family cat, catches up with them. Students roll a pair of dice on their turn. A black pip means Max moves a space, while a green pip means one of the wild animals can move. What makes the game cooperative is that the students are not playing as the individual animals, but instead they must make a decision on which ones would be the best to move that turn. As students work together and discuss what to do, they begin to open up, learn to listen to each other, and build confidence in their own ideas. Another social element that Max introduces is the concept of sacrifice for the group. If Max the cat is getting too close to one of the wild animals, a student may give up his turn and use a treat to call Max back to his porch at the start of the board. This is a very sophisticated decision, but it is incorporated into game play in a way that is very accessible to young children.

Another approach for younger students is found in Haba’s Castle Knights: Together We Are Strong! This game features several large wooden shapes and figures. Players must stack several of them into a tower using an elastic tool. Each player grabs a string connected to the tool and uses it in coordination with the other players to stretch and contract the band in an effort to pick up, move, and place the pieces to construct the tower. While Max focuses on tactical group problem solving as the game evolves, Castle Knights combines real-time dexterity with verbal coordination and communication to provide a group experience that brings the players together as a team.

Middle/high school

At the middle and high school level, resources that incorporate empathy and self-reflection are a great way to welcome students. By placing these elements within the context of the game experience, students are more apt to participate genuinely and come away with a better understanding of their peers.

slj1110w_Gaming_SaySay Anything Family Edition (Northstar Games) is a fun social card game that rewards reflection on each of the other players in the game. At each turn, one player asks a question of preference (e.g., In my opinion, what is the best book?). The other players then reflect and write an answer that they think the player would select. The player who asked the question looks over the answers written and secretly picks the response he or she likes best. Afterwards, the other players place tokens on up to two responses that they think the player selected. Students then score points for selecting the chosen answer as well as for having written it. This wonderful game can be adapted for use in any curricular area that lends itself to student opinion. What helps it excel is a wonderful mechanic that encourages reflection and empathy without penalizing a player for writing an answer that wasn’t chosen. Plus, when used to address social literacy and interpersonal skills, it succeeds in helping students open up and break down barriers.

slj1110w_Gaming_DXitDixit (Asmode), the 2010 Spiel des Jarhres winner (the most prestigious award for board and card games given annually by a jury of German game critics), is a card game of perception, language interpretation, and shared knowledge with mechanics similar to Apples to Apples. In Dixit, students have a hand of beautiful yet surreal images for which they need to tell a story. Their story can take the form of a word, a sentence, or a phrase—but they must be careful in what they choose. Once a player tells their story, they place a card that best matches that story face down on the table. The other players then look at the cards in their hands and select one that best matches the story and places it down with the others. The cards are scrambled, revealed, and then the players try to work out which card belonged to the storyteller. If their story was too obvious or too difficult to work out, the storyteller fails to gain points, so they need to think about the players at the table when deciding on their story. In addition to peer reflection, Dixit also helps students understand the nuances of perception and interpretation when it comes to word choice, making this a strong resource for ELA skills as well.

The real strength of all these resources is the environment that they create for students. Whether your goal is to facilitate student interaction or to build strength in curricular content and skills, games create their own learning space that allows students to leave their concerns and preconceptions at the door. They are able to relax, enjoy themselves, and interact with their peers in a genuine way. So consider a different approach to starting off the new school year and bring out a game.

More Back-to-School Games

slj1110w_Gaming_TradFacTrading Faces (Playroom Entertainment) for elementary school children, is a game of understanding how your friends are feeling. Students pass cards that feature different emotions on them to each other until one player can make a set of three. The player then acts out the emotion shown on the set of cards. If another player is able to guess which emotion is being exhibited, they both score points.

Forbidden Island (Gamewright), for middle and high school students, is a challenging and fun cooperative game. Players traverse a mysterious island in an effort to gather four powerful relics left over from an ancient civilization. The minute the players step foot on the island, it begins to sink into the abyss and only through teamwork can they hope to get off in time.

Telestrations (USAopoly) is a clever blending of the telephone game and a drawing game for middle and high school students that inspires introduction and interaction through laughter. Each player begins by writing a word on an erasable sketchbook and passing it to their neighbor who must draw the word, who passes it to their neighbor who writes what they see, who passes it to their neighbor who draws what was written—and so on. Scoring is unimportant. The joy comes from seeing the various transformations.

Brian Mayer is a school library technology specialist for Genesee Valley BOCES, NY.