Much like school itself, professional development days are often regarded as a waste of instructional time. But what if PD days could be fun and effective for both teachers and students?
New Jersey City University’s A. Harry Moore School (AHM), which serves students ages 3-21 with low-incidence disabilities, has hosted Game Days the past two summers that have met that improbable goal. This event is more than just a fun day for students. It doubles as active, hands-on teacher professional development day on how to use games as instructional tools. It’s a playful day for everyone and highlights learning through both digital and nondigital play.
Learning through play
Game Day is based on the concept of the “playability” of everyday things — an extension of Institute of Play’s Find Play in Everyday Things activity. Regardless of developmental level, from a Vygotskian perspective, play creates the zone of proximal development, the difference between what learners can do without help and what they can do with it. That zone, where learners move from novice to master, exists because of play.
The day begins in the auditorium, with the entire school, both children and staff, present. From the start, it is hands-on. Everyone gets an assortment of objects like plastic cups, ping-pong balls and masking tape — the raw materials that students will use to create and play their own games. Then they create games such as mini-basketball with balls and cups or role-play games using cups as mock telephones.
The teachers and their aides serve as co-facilitators during the opening session and throughout the day in breakout rooms featuring an array of playful ed tech tools and activities. Students travel from room to room to take on the challenges that appeal most to them, from designing video game controllers with Makey Makey to battling robotic bugs with HEXBUGS and creating talking avatars with Voki.
Students take agency and ownership of each session. HEXBUGS represent mini-real-world avatars of the student players. Students cheer on their fighting robot bugs while Voki gives students voice and silly appearances!
And Makey Makey enables students to design their own assistive technology tools. One girl beams with joy after she custom builds her own game controller using Play-Doh. Due to her disability, she had previously been unable to play some computer games. Typically, keys are mapped to be tightly clustered together (WASD and arrow keys, for example). Using playful tools, she can design her own assistive technology and play Pac-Man her way.
The games go on
And then there are the games that give Game Day its name. Here are two of our most popular educational games that anyone can easily replicate:
Escape room. These cooperative games are popular recreational activities in cities around the nation. AHM’s student population may not be able to attend a local escape room, but they can play BreakoutEDU, the classroom-friendly version! In the room, a lockbox with a combination word lock sits on a table. The goal is to figure out the word that will unlock the box. The room is full of visual clues to help students sort out a series of optical illusions.
The look on students’ faces when they successfully unlock the lock is priceless! It can be best described as fiero, the Italian word that game designers use to describe the emotion players feel when they have triumphed over a great obstacle.
Scully. This classroom version is the brainchild of AHM’s literacy specialist, Dr. Sharon Jackson. When kids play this popular game in Jersey City and New York City, it takes place on a street lined with chalk. The object is to move either rocks or bottle caps across a chalked grid, from number 1 to 9, in three diagonal columns. In the middle of the grid is the No. 9 box, which is surrounded by Scully boxes. Hit a Scully box with your rock or cap, and you must start again.
Our classroom version involves moving a puck across a table marked with the Scully grid. Some of our students with physical disabilities are unable to move the pucks on the board, so we added a technology twist to the game. Students use the robot ball, as a technology alternative. Instead of moving the puck, students can use an iPad as a joystick to drive a Sphero robot ball from one number to the next. Students who need hand-over-hand assistance to play the game can program a Bee-Bot instead.
Both BreakoutEDU and Scully address the Design Thinker standard within the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students. Design Thinkers "use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions." When students hypothesize about lock combinations or plan how to use an iPad to get a Sphero to knock an opponent’s Scully pieces out of the way, they are demonstrating their ability to select digital tools to manage a design process (the game) with constraints and calculated risks.
At the end of Game Day, both students and teachers have a chance to reflect on and share what they have learned. The students are happy to explain how games can help them tell stories by interacting with both traditional 20th century tools and innovative digital age devices. And the teachers are happy to rediscover their love of the active learning educational philosophy of folks like Piaget and Vygotsky, whom they studied in their teacher preparation courses.
Courtney Pepe is the supervisor of curriculum and instruction at A. Harry Moore School on New Jersey City University. She is an Apple Distinguished Educator, doctoral candidate, blogger, coder, surfer and lifelong learner.
Matthew Farber, Ed.D., teaches social studies in New Jersey. He is an Edutopia blogger, a Certified BrainPOP Educator and a Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest fellow. He is also the author of Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning.