All About Escape Rooms

Can you find the missing scientist? Travel back in time to ancient Egypt? Escape room games use problem-solving skills to boost curriculum—and they're fun. Play one here.
Components from Brian Mayer and Liesl Toates's River Valley Civilization Escape game, created for the classroom. Photos courtesy of Brian Mayer

Components from Brian Mayer and Liesl Toates's River Valley Civilization Escape game, created for the classroom. Elements include a hieroglyphics sheet and a 3-D printout of the Giza pyramid complex (top), cuneiform from Mesopotamia and a puzzle box (right), and a 3-D printing of the Great Wall of China, with some early Chinese characters and a cryptex. Photos courtesy of Brian Mayer

You awaken in an underwater bunker, unaware of who you are or why you’re there. The only clue is an ID card near your bed. The roof begins to leak, and several people are with you. Together, you must work to find out why you’re there—and how to escape. Moving from one room to the next, you piece together the tale of this place. You learn that the director of the lab, Dr. Magnus Nickelby, lost his only daughter and became obsessed with trying to go back in time and save her—but something went wrong. Solving puzzles and parsing clues, your team must escape before the lab floods. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? It’s an escape room game, called Dr. Nickelby’s Laboratory, that we created for a middle school class. Escape rooms have been around since 2007, and with the rise of game-based learning and game-creation tools such as Breakout EDU, there’s been a resurgent interest. Traditional escape rooms have participants locked in a physical room that’s usually thematically based on a topic, i.e. an art curator with stolen art, or Sherlock Holmes’s library. Participants get an introduction to the room and rules; there’s a time limit and a certain number of clues. In Dr. Nickelby’s Lab, students apply curricular concepts and skills as they try to find a way out. In our work as library technology specialists for 22 school districts in New York State, we’ve built up a collection of 400 modern board and card games that we use, along with game design, to support learning. The escape rooms are a new addition, bringing in curricular content and fostering teamwork. They require players to cooperate, collaborate, and think critically. We’ve designed four—and have ideas for many more. Our games combine virtual clues and physical clues in the library or classroom space. For example, in Dr. Nickelby’s Lab, students start off playing MinecraftEdu on library computers. They move through a Minecraft game that uses redstone, security keypads, note blocks, and signs. As they discover certain items, we bring real versions into the library. Students might open a Minecraft chest and see a note: "Discovery! You have found a box." We bring out a real locked box for students to crack open—using more clues. Items in the real box then help players move ahead in Minecraft. This game also involves math. Students apply the Pythagorean theorem to find a triangle’s hypotenuse (used to open a door); calculate the volume of a sphere (to power the time portal); use mirroring concepts to find a code that opens a locked box; and more. rivervalleyegypt

Playing River Valley Civilization Escape in Minecraft.

Anatomy of a room

Escape rooms take the challenge and social engagement of tabletop games and expand that experience to make the real world a part of the game. At their heart, they don’t require a lot: creativity, a strong narrative, and puzzles and materials to propel the story. You can spend hundreds of dollars to create one, or virtually nothing. Educators can craft some items, such as printed-out  primary source materials, language codes, and cyphers. Schools can supply others, such as locks, pencil boxes, scanners, or magnifying glasses. While escape rooms vary in size and scope, two major components underlie good ones: puzzles and narrative, which inform and drive each other. • Puzzles Puzzles support the story and often control the pace; each one leads the players closer to freedom or provides clues to other obstacles. Figuring them out provides a surge of excitement. For example, a student might suddenly discover that the paper he’s been scrutinizing has a message in invisible ink. Puzzles also provide immediate feedback, so students measure their own progress. But they’re not always told where to go to next or how to use a clue; it’s up to them to figure things out. In another game we created called River Valley Civilization Escape, students use a Google Cardboard map to determine their location on 3-D printed rendering of Egypt’s Giza pyramids. They must figure out where they’re standing in the virtual world—and pinpoint the same location on the rendering. That tells them how to position the 3-D piece on a sheet of hieroglyphics that has holes in it. When the piece is aligned properly, a keyword shows through the holes, advancing the game. Take a look at our full River Valley Civilization Escape package. • Narrative Well-designed rooms have a strong narrative, often drawing on historical and literary events. It’s similar to reading a choose-your-own adventure story, exploring an RPG (Role Playing Game), or taking part in interactive fiction. Be sure to serve your narrative in small chunks; segmented story elements allow students to feel progress. Long, drawn-out stories can feel boring.

Science! is an escape room video game created for SLJ by Brian Mayer and Liesl Toates.

It is a call for help to find one of the key scientists of the 1950s who has gone missing. Help us find him before it is too late!

"K.F.  all is in place.... your work for the Manhattan Project was inspirational. Sorry you got caught spying."
Did you solve the mystery? Email your your answers to SLJ; we’ll mail a bumper sticker from the American Library Association’s Games and Gaming Round Table to the first 25 respondents.

Curricular engagement

We’re always looking to make learning meaningful; engaging; and safe for exploration, failure, and success. Escape rooms draw students directly into a story’s conflict, setting, and obstacles, and paint this other world around them. Well-crafted escape rooms can include several content areas. Social studies topics can be embedded in a historic narrative or world-building activity. For example, you can build a room themed around Colonial America or the night Lincoln was assassinated. Puzzles, such as having students reassemble the U. S. Constitution, can also fit a historical context. Students may close read a passage or primary source document; become familiar with languages such as cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics; or apply visual literacy skills to photographs and maps. Different kids like different parts of the game best. Some love playing in Minecraft, while others excel at puzzles. Some gravitate towards the math puzzles more than deductive reasoning, and vice versa. Math and science easily fold into escape room locks and puzzles, as these often involve number, letter, and symbolic codes, and require calculations. Creating a room based on a historically significant era in math or science, such as Thomas Edison's or Leonardo da Vinci's workshops, will engage students beyond numbers and formulas.

Our hybrid approach

In our school system, we wanted to bring this experience to our teachers and librarians, but we had to make it easy to set up and circulate. Plus, we had limited funds. Minecraft provided the answer. We realized that if we crafted escape spaces with mods and tools from that virtual arena, while bringing in physical elements, we’d have games that could be preset and sent to teachers, ready to go. Minecraft allows us the freedom to create large, thematic worlds. Several Minecraft tools, such as redstone or mods (including the security mod), let us set up locked doors, levers, or hidden chambers. Our tangible elements include puzzles and challenges with locked boxes, puzzles, maps, images, and more. Dr. Nickelby’s Laboratory  draws upon eighth grade curriculum and steampunk literature. Since the challenges are in physical and digital space, students gravitate towards their strengths. Some work through in-game Minecraft puzzles, while others tackle the challenges in the classroom, so everyone feels like they are contributing. It creates a wonderful social dynamic. In River Valley Escape, based on sixth grade standards involving ancient  river valley civilizations, one student uses a computer to travel back in time within Minecraft, while the rest work through physical puzzles and boxes corresponding to different civilizations. The Minecraft player must explain to the group what they are seeing and doing. This approach immerses students in the history and language of the key civilizations, letting them do comparative analysis while developing descriptive skills.

Getting in; breaking out

OK, are you ready to get involved? The first step is to seek out an experience. Going to an escape room is best, but playing boxed games with escape room elements also provides opportunity for cooperative, timed puzzle-solving. One example is Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor. Players discover they are trapped inside an astronomer's manor, and the astronomer has disappeared. To escape and save him, the group must work through a series of puzzles in sealed, encrypted envelopes. Players don't know how to progress until they figure out how to solve the last one. Another entry point is Breakout EDU. The company provides a set of physical resources, plus educational lessons and resources, many developed by teachers and librarians. A single kit lets you  set up and run all of the escape room experiences on the site or in the Breakout EDU community. The company also provides professional development and presentational materials. All materials are either available as a kit sold by Breakout EDU, which accepts purchase orders, or on Amazon. If you’re working on your own, Breakout EDU offers a wealth of resources. Using the same set of resources for each room, Breakout EDU gives examples of how different educators use them, providing a springboard for your own designs. You can explore variations on the components that come with the kit, with different thematic and curricular pieces that drive game play. You’ll find yourself exploring new boxes, locks, and hasps—and looking for cryptexes, secret code cyphers, and other messaging tools. Much of what you do will come down to a hearty dose of arts and crafts, a splash of primary sources, a pinch of ingenuity, and creativity. Maker spaces and STEM labs can also tie in nicely, as students can potentially craft their own locks, sensors, and other devices. Plus, 3-D printing is useful for fabricating game pieces. For River Valley Escape, we printed off a ziggurat, the Giza pyramid complex in Egypt, and a section of the Great Wall of China, all used in the experience.

Escape Room Design Tips

Use your environment. Get kids up and moving around. Encourage them to look closely, examine details, and think outside of the box. • Try to have all students engage in the curriculum. Create situations where all students have an opportunity to engage with curricular elements. • Avoid puzzles for the sake of puzzles. Have them make sense and try to find a way to make them fit into the story and setting. The more you can carry the narrative you created, the more the students will be engaged. • Stay away from lots of red hrringes, too. While it’s OK to include a few things that may distract or cause misdirection, escape rooms are tough enough. Lots of dead ends equals lots of frustrated students. • Don’t work alone. Creating one of these for the first time can seem daunting, but if you want to build an escape room, start by teaming up with another teacher. Having an extra person as a sounding board is extremely helpful. • Incorporate curriculum in meaningful ways that make sense. • Last but not least: Use appropriate, natural prompts and opportunities for application so that your escape rooms provide context and meaning for classroom content and skills.
Brian Mayer is a gaming and library technology specialist who collaborates with classroom teachers and school librarians to incorporate games, game experiences, and game design into the classroom. Liesl Toates is a library technologies specialist who provides STEM-related professional development and resources to teachers and students. Save
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Elaine Shapiro

Very interesting. I'd like to know more about games, puzzles, etc that enhance learning and are appropriate for the preK- grade 4 age group.

Posted : Sep 29, 2016 08:16

Christina Keasler

Very useful and interesting article, thank you!

Posted : Sep 21, 2016 06:54


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