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Learning at its Best

UnBored Board Games

My students are spending the entire week filling out bubbles in an effort to prove their mastery of reading, writing and math. I slip into the role of a gentle drill sergeant, giving them the death stare when they can’t sit still for three hours.

The upside of the testing week is that we have no rigid guidelines for curriculum. We have little chunks of an hour or two when we are supposed to review standards. With that in mind, I launch a four-day UnBored Board Game project. Call it a STREAM project (social studies, technology, reading, art and math) Here’s how it works:

  1. They begin with asking a series of essential questions. These include: How do we market it? What are the rules? What theme is it? How do we keep kids interested in it? How will this be different than other games? How many players will it be? What materials will we need?
  2. Students then read up on various board games, focussing on which ones were most popular in various decades and which ones have been the biggest dud. They read this, discuss this and tweet about it in a chat.
  3. In small groups, they work on developing their plan, based upon the essential questions. Some of the groups struggle in this phase, because it is so open-ended. However, ultimately, they make it work. In this phase, they write functional text in the form of directions; and review shapes, proportions and rates from math as they develop the game itself.
  4. The groups begin making the physical prototype. I find it interesting that while I don’t assign homework, kids take their sketches home or re-work their instructions.
  5. After testing it out (okay, honestly, it’s just playing) they work on redesigning it. Again, students take parts home.
  6. Students develop a marketing plan that includes an audio advertisement (on vocaroo), a visual advertisement (on Pixlr) a text-based advertisement and a pitch that they would offer to a company. Again, they’re reviewing the standards on persuasion and propaganda.
  7. As a whole group, they pitch their games to the class (two minutes at a time) and rate one another’s games.

The final results are mixed. A few of the game ideas are genius (a safari game that allows kids to do charades, pictures and trivia, for example) and a few are just okay. Some of the visual aspects are really creative while others are the traditional squares on a flat board. But students are thinking deeply about their design, being creative in their thinking and reviewing the standards in a meaningful way.

Essentially it is everything that the standardized test is not.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


5 thoughts on “UnBored Board Games

  1. Love it. Game design is an excellent vehicle for learning other subjects, and a perfect introduction to Systems Thinking, a critical skill that doesn’t seem to be most schools’ radars.

    Some unsolicited tips for how to improve this in the future:

    I think some of the kids that struggled would benefit from following a tried & true design process, and maybe given some more constraints. Open ended projects are always a bit of a challenge, especially if you don’t have a clear idea in mind already.

    I might switch up the order & change the pace of the questions you’re asking in the beginning (if the way you described it here is indeed the order you approached things with your class.) Start with the foundations: Theme and Mechanics. Most board game designers start with one of these in mind, and then try to think of a corresponding other. For example, if I wanted to make a game about fishing, the core mechanic might be rolling dice & collecting fish tokens. Theme -> Mechanic. Or, if I had a really cool idea about overlapping physical spaces and bordering them with bricks that had different scoring potential, I might come up with a theme about settling new land. Mechanic -> Theme.

    Prototyping should happen really early (helps you figure out how everything fits together yourself), and writing the rules is usually one of the last things done (to explain how everything fits together to other people).

    Don’t skip production– how much would it cost to produce 1000 of these games based on the parts required? How about 10,000? How many would you have to sell to make your money back? Great economics lessons there.

    I highly recommend Kobold’s Guide to Board Game Design, a series of essays by top board game designers. There’s a chart by Andrew Looney in his essay “How I Design Board Games” that’s worth the price of the eBook.

    Keep up the great work!

    Posted by Niki Hammond | March 8, 2013, 3:18 pm
    • When I did this with 8th graders, I used more of a formalized approach. I thought about the cost to produce thousands, etc. However, with only a week and with sixth graders, I kept it pretty simple.

      The prototyping happened in third and fourth steps (it wasn’t quite sequential there). Steps three and four were closely aligned. The rules changed as they adapted to actual playing.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | March 8, 2013, 3:25 pm
  2. I love all of your posts, John, but this one in particular. This activity is a whole new spin on game based learning that encompasses all the kids’ higher order thinking skills–not just those related to knowledge practice. I hope your students and their parents know how lucky they are to have you at the helm!


    Posted by Jen Lilienstein - Founder, | March 8, 2013, 4:27 pm
  3. John,

    Your project sounds great. Tight, clean, fun, and they’re making something. (see if you’ve not been there yet…also try . The creators of that site are brilliant and you’ll get lost there for days if you don’t set a timer.)

    If you’re interested in discovering more (or perhaps you already have) about design thinking and the design thinking process, the documents linked below (sorry for the mess there), especially the last one, are great introductions.

    Always look forward to your posts.

    Click to access Taking-design-to-school.pdf

    Click to access Ford_Corey_Intro_to_Design_Thinking.pdf

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | March 10, 2013, 9:31 pm

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