George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Woman doing a project with young kids using bananas and Play-Doh with a laptop in the center of the table open to an app

Using games to teach can increase student engagement and add meaning to learning. Hands-on apps give children the ability to mix tactile play with a digital experience. Thanks to augmented reality, more and more apps in the market blur the line between digital and analog. For example, Bloxels, new from Pixel Press, uses color-coded blocks that can be scanned in with an iPad camera to create a video game level. Osmo is another digital/analog blend. The kit includes a stand and a reflector for an iPad camera, enabling users to play with physical tangram puzzles or word games.

Hands-On Game Jam

This summer, I organized a hands-on game jam day at the A. Harry Moore School at New Jersey City University, which serves students from ages 3- 21 who have low-incidence disabilities. Many of the students are in wheelchairs.

For the opening whole-group session, I showed a BrainPOP video about video games. Next, everyone was given a hands-on task: to explore the "playability" of objects. Each table had an assortment of plastic cups, ping-pong balls, string, tape, and other items. The goal was to make a simple game out of everyday objects. A cup would no longer serve its intended purpose for drinking water. Instead, it became a basketball hoop, a phone (attached to a string), and a hat! This theme reoccurred throughout the day. Tactile and kinesthetic learning would be paired with game-like activities. For more on the playability of objects, check out Institute of Play's Beta Game Kit.

Teachers next hosted 30-minute breakout sessions in different classrooms, taking care to ensure that students were as active as possible in playing, creating, and designing.

One room featured Compose Yourself, a new game from ThinkFun (publisher of the coding board game Robot Turtles, Laser Maze, MakerStudio, and other fun learning toys). Compose Yourself was designed by music composer Philip Sheppard. As with many good games, Compose Yourself emphasizes play first. After all, writing music is hard. To play, choose cards from the set. Each is transparent and adorned with a measure of music notes. They can be flipped around or turned over. Enter one of the four accompanying codes on each card into a computer browser and listen to a world-class orchestra play the melody back! Students can then download and share their compositions. They can also print out their songs. This enables children to play with musical compositions. This video shows you how to play Compose Yourself.

Playing With Tech

Constructasaurus, playable for free on BrainPOP Jr.'s GameUp page, was next. Developed by the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, it gives students the opportunity to build a dinosaur. Once built, the dinosaur is "tested" -- too top heavy and it might tip over! This game activity worked well on an interactive whiteboard.

Another classroom remixed the party game HedBanz. The facilitating teacher adapted the reverse-charades guessing game to also include objects, and students were given blank index cards to make their own variations. Teacher-facilitated modifications helped achieve the goal of keeping everyone engaged in a playful experience.

The gym featured Sphero, the robotic iPad-controlled ball. Students were given the chance to maneuver it though an obstacle course. Not surprisingly, some children opted to play around with the Sphero, guiding it outside of the planned obstacles. Keeping with the spirit of play and fun, this was encouraged.

I ran the Makey Makey session. The kit essentially hacks a computer's keyboard to a tiny, external device. Next, attach one end of the color-coded alligator clips to the Makey Makey device and the other end to a low-conductive object, like fruit, Play D'oh, or aluminum foil. Doing so turns everyday objects into computer keys, such as the space bar or the arrow keys.

Using one of the many Makey Makey-themed Scratch projects, I turned bananas into a drum kit. When students walked into the room, they were greeted with me playing the banana cowbell. At first, one of the children remarked that it was "all weird and awkward" to use anything but the keyboard attached to the laptop. After I explained basic circuitry, I handed her some Play D’oh. I then challenged her to make a customized video game controller. By the end of the session, she remarked, "This was fun!" As it turned out, the girl who began as a skeptic played a round of Pac-Man using her hacked game controller!

Keeping the Fun in Game-Based Learning

Games should serve as a tool for teaching and learning. Don't let the constraints of rules create a structure that is too rigid. Students require freedom to play within the game's system. Hands-on, tactile play is an engaging solution to keep game-based learning fun!

What's your experience with diverse learners and game-based methods? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Welcoming Diverse Learners
This series offers strategies to meet students where they are, and respond to their changing needs.

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Barbara Kurtz's picture
Barbara Kurtz
9th - 12th grade Spanish teacher, Meadville, Pennsylvania

I wish I could haven been there and seen such a magnificent project at work! Two powerful realities resonate with me when I consider what you have written:

1. There is something inexplicably powerful in hands-on learning. Whether it's a wooden block, a computer game, or a banana, manipulating that object will drive learning deeper into students.

2. I teach in a senior high school. Often we have students with special needs who have various assistive devices available. But, the students hesitate to use them because they do not want to be labeled or to stand out. If we bridge that gap--find ways to integrate hands-on assistive technologies into our classes, these students will be comfortable and supported.

Super article, thank you, I was encouraged and inspired!

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Lamparo's picture

I thought this was a great article. I am a kindergarten teacher and I am always looking for new and innovative ways to engage my students in learning. I use apps and websites to keep my students' attention and reinforce important skills at the same time. As a kindergarten teacher of 22 years, I have found that hands-on learning is the most effective way to teach these very young learners. I look forward to learning more about the use of technology in the classroom!
Lisa Amparo

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