George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Learning by playing games can be a powerful way to teach. Just as drama coaches set the stage for a play, smart teachers set the stage for game-based learning. I use these five easy elements in my classroom to get my students ready to learn as they play.

Element #1: Stickers

As students turn in paperwork, anything praiseworthy earns "sticker bling" on their class folder. I use stickers to:

  • Recognize students using classroom procedures: Stickers are my key method of procedure reinforcement during the first days of school. The "happy folder award" shown below is given when students do folder procedures perfectly.
  • Recognize students who exceed expectations: I give several days for students to turn in signed papers, but "bling" goes to those who bring it back on day one.
  • Rewards for participating in games or special achievements.
  • Anything exceptional the student has done that is best kept private.

How do students know what stickers mean?

A sample student folder.

Inside the front cover of the folder, I date and write a note about why they earned a sticker. For example, if a student helps another student who is struggling, I might give him or her an Iron Man sticker and say: "I saw you help Johnny yesterday. You went over and above to be kind and helpful, and I appreciate your iron-strong leadership."

How do I make sure every student is included?

Be intentional about including and noticing every child. If a student doesn't have many stickers, pay attention and find something specific and genuine to praise. Since using this technique, my relationship with my more introverted students has skyrocketed.

What if you are paperless?

Class Dojo and LMS systems like Haiku Learning let teachers give badges online. I've found, however, that physical objects (like stickers on their binder or a folder) make games more fun, so if I give a badge online, I also give one face-to-face.

Class folders showing off their sticker bling. Each sticker represents a student's genuine accomplishment.

Element #2: The Student Reward Card

The WonderLab Student Appreciation card recognizes behavior that can be overheard. Here’s how:

  • Noticing in-class accomplishment: Which is the first team to finish a challenge?
  • Helping others: Students often tell me how their classmate deserves appreciation.
  • Serving and helping the classroom: This includes handing out folders and facilitating class procedures.
  • Recognizing accomplishment of a goal: If I want students on task faster, everyone who logs in and starts the lesson within one minute of the bell gets a punch.

How do students get recognized?

I verbalize why a student is receiving one of my coveted heart-shaped punches. This reinforces the behaviors I love: kindness, excellence, and a quest for knowledge.

What are the rewards?

My students design the rewards. I pick a reward time each week. Students caught up on work can redeem the certificate for 20 minutes or less. However, not all rewards take class time. RoseMary, an elementary teacher at my school, has "use a funny pen" and "go barefooted" rewards.

Element #3: The Crazy Prize Box

The Crazy Prize Box comes out for many team competitions including:

  • Theme-based items for upcoming holidays
  • Small trophies and medals
  • Pedicure packs and sleep masks
  • Airplanes, bouncy balls, and plastic lips
  • Lots of goofy stuff!

How do students earn prizes?

The list above shows my "grand prizes." Students can pick anything from the box when they or their team wins. Sometimes this fits with a theme. For example, I do a zombie test prep day when gushy eyeballs are the prize.

Element #4: The Crazy Costume Cabinet

Good games have a storyline. Costumes help make players part of that story. My crazy costume cabinet includes:

  • Discarded wigs (courtesy of parents and the drama department)
  • Masks, hats, fairy wings, funny sunglasses, and crowns
  • Beads, badges, and vests
  • Anything I can buy for less than a dollar.

How do we use costumes?

When teams teach one another, they'll dress up in the theme they've concocted. Sometimes teams come up with a name and pick a special item to wear, like a feather in the hair or sheriff’s badge. Several weeks ago, students competed to perform the best "special news report" on a new technology. They dressed up as news anchors, Cajun chefs, and spies to share their stories. We laughed and learned!

Element #5 Ways to Split into Teams

Some teachers doom the possibility of learning without a fair, quick system for making teams. My team-making procedures include:

  • Colored raffle tickets: Each team has a color. I draw to see the order in which students will play for their team.
  • Colored candy (4-6 colors): I let them grab from a coffee mug as they enter and form into teams by colors.
  • Laminated chips with the team names and/or colors
  • Numbers, letters, and colors taped onto desks: Switch desks during the year or kids will keep getting the same partners.

How does this help?

You're teaching students procedures for splitting into teams in less than one minute.

But First, 2 Warnings

1. Don't reward anything and everything.

Partial reinforcement (when you get a reward some of the time) for behavior is better than full reinforcement (getting a reward every time). A heart-shaped punch or a sticker on a folder can diminish the nobility of a thoughtful gesture. Good teachers learn to honor the moment with the right response.

2. Grades are not rewards.

Grades are grades. Rewards are rewards. Keep them separate. I never use rewards for grades. Grades are private. Great grades are a reward for a job well done. That said, reward systems can impact grades in surprising ways. Last week, one student told me, "Mrs. Vicki, I have a great grade in your class because these punches motivate me to turn things in on time. The grades don't mean much to me, but I love getting the punch."


Set the Stage

Set your own stage for game-based learning. What type of exciting reward system will you use? Can you have props? Can you have funny theme-based prizes ready to go? Are you ready to divide into teams?

If so, let's go. With these procedures in place, you're always ready to play a game. (Please see my next post for A Guide to Game-Based Learning.)

Will you share your game-based learning tools and techniques in the comments of this post? There are so many ways to spark excitement in the classroom!

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Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

Yes Robert, these are game-based elements. However, as you'll see in the follow up post to this, when I pull out games, the stage is set and ready to go. I use games and simulations all the time but it is helpful to have rewards and items that span all games so you're ready to go. I hope you'll come back for part 2 of this and see the big picture.

Karen Lirenman's picture
Karen Lirenman
Grade One/Two Teacher from Vancouver, Canada

Vicki the rewards/badges aspect of Game Based learning is something I have trouble understanding and it doesn't sit well with me. Do we, as teachers, really need to be rewarding our students for doing the right thing, or should we be teaching them to do the right thing because, for no other reason then it's the right thing to do? Far too often I see rewards being used to support classroom compliance but is that really what we want for our students? Karen

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

Hi Karen - thanks for taking time to add your thoughts. These tricks are ways I set the stage for game based learning (see the next post). I don't do behavior badges for everything - I don't have time. I don't even reward for every single thing (see above) but there are times to have fun and it is nice to have meaningful rewards. And really calling a sticker meaningful might be silly to some, but it is the conversation that the sticker represents that means something to me. It means I spent time talking to a student and it is a physical reminder that I haven't. I have so many students that tools like this make things fun but also remind me and help me see my own behavior - that of noticing kids. So, these are just items in the toolkit of teachers and pick and choose what you want. I don't like throwing points out there and slapping a badge on it and calling it a game. I don't get into getting badges for anything really and don't really use the badge thing, but I do use punches and stickers and perhaps some teachers do similar things with badges. I hope this clarifies. Anything that helps students learn and get excited - I'm all for and I've definitely found these tools amp up the excitement and learning joy in my classroom.

Ian the Miller's picture
Ian the Miller
Creative Director for Satyrus Jeering™, The Legendary Facemaker & Storyteller


Who doesn't experience stimulation when a clown rides into the annual strategic planning seminar on an under-sized tricycle, while blasting an air horn?

Vicki, you seem to be creating an awesome environment which I am sure, your students cannot wait to return to on a daily basis!

In the least, fun interruptions allow our minds to momentarily shift from the primary focus or goal in a specific setting. This allows for learning gaps to open...

I feel that Gamification and Game-based strategies both have their respective places in the classroom.
The one issue I remember, from my experiences as a student being engaged by Gamification, is the line between learning and playing... When a teacher would shift from the game to the lesson, our attention would scatter, and only a percentage of the students seemed to stay engaged.

This leads me to feel we need true integration of game systems and lesson strategies. And while this is a difficult goal to achieve, there is a huge reward at the implementation stage. It is going to take a lot of real work by visionary teachers, like you Vicki, to improve these very fruitful systems for those educators who cannot grasp the concepts.

I am confident that as our educator level, game systems improve, our students learning experiences will follow suite.

Game on Vicki!


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