Each year we create a game to play with our 8th graders while the rest of their classmates are in Washington D.C. We have had some great games in the past, but I think it’s fair to say that this time we outdid ourselves with our Survival Game.
We kicked things off with a viewing of the movie Supervolcano. It’s a little silly, but its documentary style was perfect for setting the scene.
We followed that with this hilarious newscast made by one of my colleagues.
To simulate the effect of a disaster, we shut off all the lights in the auditorium. Only the emergency lights and the flashlights we carried were lit. The kids ate it up and immediately began to get in character. Then we led them to our classrooms.
When they got there things were completely dark; caution tape stretched across the hall and plastic cording hung from the ceiling to look like loose wires.
Seeing this, the students’ imagination took over and they let themselves become a part of the story we were creating. As they created their first video diaries, fake tears streamed, coughs broke out and voices cracked while our students pretended to struggle with the ash fall.
Over the next four days we played a variety of games. There were many favorites, like hog-tying chairs to show their expertise with knots, or bandaging their classmates’ imagined injuries, but there were two games that students would have spent hours playing. The first was a team building activity we adapted called “Cave”. To play this game students had to move teammates from one side of a web to the other without touching the string. It was a challenge that required them to listen well and pay attention to each other.
The other was when they planned and built survival shelters in a small wooded area beside our school. This challenge called on their creativity and ingenuity. They were only allowed to use a limited number of man-made materials, and could only use natural items they found on the ground. One group did such a good job they came out the next day to find students from the elementary school that shares our property playing in their shelter.
Our game culminated in a trip to our local YMCA camp. The staff there really helped to keep the survival atmosphere alive. The guides at the camp scanned our students on arrival for radiation using scanners they made out of tin-foil, and the director prepared a speech for them about an apocalyptic event that had just occurred. They taught our students how to filter water, build a fire using flint, make a shelter from trees and greenery and take on the challenges of the climbing wall and high ropes.
The whole week was a fantastic time, and the things our students learned through this game are something I know they will remember forever. I also know there is a huge benefit to planning games like this, and I recall a time when these thematic events were the rule rather than the exception. But games on this scale involve a lot of collaboration and flexibility, something many teachers don’t always have the freedom to give as the demands of curriculum and testing pull us further apart. I’m not saying it can’t be done, it’s just that some days it’s easier to take the path of least resistance.
Still, there are many elements that we included in this “mega-game” that I can, and do use everyday. Simple games like matching, roll a story, scavenger hunts, even role-playing games are easy to work in, and when done thoughtfully, they make the learning meaningful. The bottom line is, at least for me, that regardless of the scale, if you give students a problem to solve and the freedom to solve it in any way they can imagine, it will always feel like a game.