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Playing to Learn

Contributed by Kevin Beckett, Westonbirt Arboretum, Tetbury, Gloucestershire, GL8 8QS, UK

Wherever they are played, games have two basic purposes:

  • to educate
  • to entertain

In the first instance, rules, structures and equipment are simple; the game is the end in itself. In the second, the rules, structures and equipment are often more complex – the game is an instrument illustrating a concept, process or idea; the game is a means to an end.

All successful games contain the following essential elements in varying proportions:

  • tension (challenge)
  • involvement
  • activity

However, the overriding criteria for a successful game are that it must be FUN. Pleasure is paramount.

Where games are used for educational purposes, a balance must be maintained between the pleasure enjoyed by playing the game and the content/information it is intended to convey. The complexity of the game will be determined by the development level of the intended participants. Presentation techniques play an important role in the (often) on-the-spot adaptation of games and activities for specific audiences. Appropriate adaptive techniques enable us to take a game and re-engineer it, with a suitable level of detailed explanation, for use with a variety of age groups. The best games can be fun for everyone. The best stories have universal appeal.

A game may be enhanced or refined by:

  • involving the players in decision-making
  • following a series of sequences
  • injecting a greater degree of unpredictability

In developing an educational game, the first step is to identify the idea, concept, or process which the game is intended to teach and the context in which it will be used. In most cases it is better to restrict the scope of a game as a means of preserving its clarity, e.g. a game which illustrates photosynthesis or seed dispersal would be more appropriate than a game intended to illustrate the complete life-cycle of a plant. It is often useful to consider a variety of naturally-occurring examples of the idea, concept or process to establish its simplest expression and to use that as the basis for developing the game. Most botanical processes can then be clarified into a sequence of interactions which will form the platform for the game.

The translation of those interactions into the game itself will be influenced by the following important considerations:

  • the intended venue. If the game is new to your audience or there are new dimensions of which you want them to be aware, find a location as free from distractions as the situation will allow. Of course, there is no ‘perfect’ place and there will always be some individual(s) who are easily distracted by a passing gnat or a worm crawling over a shoe, but the reduction of overt distractions will improve the impact of the game and make it easier for you to lead. Due consideration must also be given to the safety of the chosen site and the equipment to be used. Although the sanitisation of the environment does not necessarily improve it (perhaps the opposite is more probable), safety must always be at the front of our minds.
  • the available resources. The examination of our own childhood memories will remind us that the best games are not necessarily ‘high-tech’. Being innovative and creative does not have to imply material extravagance. The simpler the equipment and the explanations, the more likely it is that the activity will be remembered and understood. Be well guided on this and do not be distracted by those bearing gifts of great sponsorship.
  • the personality of the presenter. There is no substitute for genuine enthusiasm, which should not be confused with great knowledge or showmanship. We will be ‘new’ to many of those who will participate in our games and as such, we must be sensitive to their experience (or lack of it) at our locations and ensure that they are comfortable with us. We must establish a level of trust, and not ‘frighten them off’ by over-the-top performance or over-the-head knowledge. If you setting up a new programme or thinking about doing so, look for good communicators with experience of working with groups of children. You would do well to look for ex-primary/elementary school teachers. Successful communication with children is not about using smaller words; it is a whole different way of looking at the world.

Having developed the structure of the game, it is important to trial it with an appropriate group. During this activity, it is beneficial to enlist the assistance of a colleague, for either or preferably both of the following functions:

  • ask your colleague to observe a) the responses of the participants and b) your presentation. These two important evaluations are best performed on separate occasions and will need to be observed according to previously agreed criteria; do not try to do too much at once
  • ask your colleague to make a video recording of the presentation, focusing on the two elements a) and b) above. Once you have recovered from the shock of seeing yourself on video, you will then be able to look in detail at issues such as; clarity of verbal instructions; use of gestures; timing; participant reactions; and review and evaluation mechanisms. Look for reasons, not excuses. Cultivate a sense of awareness; be aware of what is happening within the group as well as the needs of individuals within it, and respond appropriately to what you learn. Remember that what may appear as a total wash-out to you will not be seen so by others. Do not allow your frustrated expectations to cloud your vision of what could be.

A ‘good’ game can be a powerful educating tool, but it must be carefully developed and enthusiastically presented to have maximum impact.