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Gamify the Summer

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As summer break begins and days consumed with school become days consumed with anything else, you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief. Summer really is a wonderful thing. As a teacher, part of me wants kids to enjoy the nice weather outdoors climbing trees and building forts. However, the reality for many kids in 2019 is that the summer can also bring summer work. From a teacher’s perspective this reading and math enrichment is quite meaningful as it helps students retain knowledge over a long hiatus. However, for many families and students this summer homework can be a bit of a chore.

Summer work tends to be less than engrossing for most kids, especially the gaming and technology crowd. Teachers work to scaffold and support the students during the school year, although many times summer enrichment work is assigned with very little structure. Recently a gamification program at our school has helped structure these assignments for students outside of the classroom and school walls.

Gamification is the idea of applying the traditional game mechanics of quests, competition, levels, and unlocks prevalent in video and board games to education. Through these activities, students gain an added incentive to learn the material and engage with the content. When it comes to summer reading, adding a few side quests like investigating characters or unlocking features can help students approach the material in a new way.

One project that I helped design was a side quest that asked students to choose a character from a summer novel and develop a Scratch game. The quest asked them to build the game based on the character’s struggle. As students were reading, in order to develop an engaging game they needed to pay close attention to the characters to find one with a relevant story line. Then, using Scratch they translated what they read in the novel into a game with traditional levels, obstacles, and power-ups. Many students were quick to identify the characters internal or external conflicts and then assign them to ghost or ogre sprites. As more and more students played their games, the designers earned unlocks like homework passes or special privileges they could use in the fall. This competition helped to incentivize students to both read closely and build games that were fun to play.

Technology is not always a prerequisite for gamification either. During a summer course recently, while reading a novel I asked students to keep track of the setbacks and breakthroughs for the different characters. Students then applied these notes by creating a traditional board game based on their notes. After many conversations about design and a few days researching different game boards, students got to work. Without exception, each student built adventurous games with imaginative features like chutes, chance cards, or teleports. The results really surprised me. Students engaged with the content in a deep and meaningful way while also having quite a bit of fun. Reading and comprehension are still the main skills they are practicing, although the act of building a game engages different parts of the brain. This can be a benefit to students with different learning styles. I noticed that a few students who struggled as readers and writers flourished during the board game unit.

The effectiveness of games and gamification to teach concepts and keep students focused over a long series of assignments is one of the most surprising teaching outcomes I’ve observed as a classroom teacher. It is a tool that both parents and teachers alike can use to build engagement over a long, hot summer. The world of badges, level-ups, and side quests is a very familiar world for kids. When students feel more comfortable, they tend to learn more easily and retain what they have learned. More importantly, gamification can help make the summer work manageable so that students can spend the rest of their time exploring, building, and imagining.

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