Category Archives: Games

A festive lesson plan (via Mental Floss)

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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World – Mental Floss is a quick review of the various other Christmas characters in the western world.  I teach Western Civilization and am well aware of the connectedness of European and American culture.  Given that fact, the variety of the theme is remarkable.

Sadly, Mental Floss is not in the habit of citing their sources on these lists.  Still, universities in this country teach about these cultures in their foreign language departments and may well provide some additional information.  I think it is worth it–this is a nifty cultural lesson.  It relates back to an old theme shared by Sam Weinburg and this blog, among many others, about the challenges of grappling with the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Below, I describe a lesson plan emphasizing these things.  It is written for a classroom, but easily adapted into a homeschooling lesson plan.

Suggested lesson plan (outline):

Introduction:  Have each student describe their family’s Christmas traditions (note, these do not need to be religious traditions, obviously, if you feel more comfortable you can phrase it based on what students’ families do on their winter breaks)–do this by having each free write for five minutes or break the class into small groups and have each share with his or her group, then have someone from each group describe someone else’s family tradition. (It is worth keeping in mind that a student may not have a family tradition for the Christmas holidays because of religion, personal tragedy, or different cultural background.  This does not mean you shouldn’t do the exercise!  This is as important and valuable a learning experience as the others!!!  The greater diversity in your classroom the greater the opportunity students will have to learn from each other!  Also, remember that Santa Claus is almost entirely secular in the U.S.)

Activity 1:  Assign the reading from Mental Floss, provided in the link above.  Ask students to each read the whole article, or break it down so that each student reads one of the descriptions, or make small groups in which they each group reads three of the character descriptions.

Activity 2:  If you haven’t already, break the students into small groups.  These can be the same as the previous activity or entirely new groups.  Unless they all read the same thing, have each student describe what they read.  Then have each group answer these questions (adjust as needed for age or experience):

  1. Which continents do these traditions come from?
  2. What religions celebrate Christmas?
  3. Is there a connection between the answer of question 1 and the answer of question 2?
  4. What do these characters have in common (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?
  5. How are these characters different  (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?

Reflection:  For either a brief reflective essay or a brief reflective discussion ask students to answer the following: Why do you think we have so many different traditions for the same holiday?

Santa on the sleigh

From here a homework assignment could be made for further research into the different cultures and the character featured–and other cultural Christmas characters could be added, perhaps even as the result of the student discussion of Christmas (or winter break) traditions.  Ideally, this results in a feast with information about the cultures represented and their winter holiday traditions, such as games, music and songs, etc.  One might also just as easily make the next assignment about the class’s research of itself by having each student share more about their own family traditions and history.

American culture came out of European culture and for all of their similarities this reading helps illustrate the limits of the cultural similitude while nonetheless emphasizing the cohesion in comparison with the rest of the world.  This is an important point to learn from the exercise though it will probably resonate more with older students who have had more history exposure or to a particularly diverse class that is roundly international.  The follow-up exercise options described immediately above will be more appropriate depending on the class age and level of exposure, so adjust accordingly.

This lesson plan is designed to work on the following skills:

  • reading
  • writing
  • oral and aural communication: speaking and listening
  • historical thinking: making connections based on history knowledge
  • cognitive thinking: drawing conclusions based on provided information, cause and effect

If you try this or variant of it, or if you have your own already existent lesson plan, please, share your experiences, below.

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Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Food, Games, Music

Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games

Video games create role-playing opportunities for learning

I was first introduced to the concept of using games to teach history when I read Larry Ferlazzo’s post about teaching with “Choose Your Own Adventure Stories” (CYOAS).  (See, “The Best Places to Read and Write ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories,’” “‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Additions,” which inspired my own post: “Student-written ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories’ for learning history,” and a related post, “Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education.”)  Using the provided links from Ferlazzo’s recommended sites (such as the Microsoft site with a PowerPoint tutorial and these clowns who actually explain a YouTube adventure quite well despite failing at humor), I created my own PowerPoint CYOAS: “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade.”

The main character was based on a real historical knight who left a charter about his decision to give up his life of robber-baron crime and repent by accepting the call to the First Crusade.  Links to online biographies, online primary sources, and an in-document glossary, provided the means for the students to build content-knowledge.  The links that moved the story provided students with the opportunity to role-play and engage in decisions that would have been relevant to a late-11th century knight.  Some decisions were purely moral and resulted in the same outcome, but the decision would have required careful consideration by a knight of the era who was opting to be moral or not.  The story progressed based on the events of history and historical persons.  In the below sample, for example, the knights in Emico’s entourage attacked the Jews of Mainz, sought to enter the Kingdom of Hungary, were repulsed, and then fell to bandits in the woods during their  retreat.  This is a dead-end scenario.  If the student selects the option of Nivelo refusing Emico’s offer, the story continues.

To recap: the students, by participating the story, do all of the following:

  1. Read related secondary and primary sources (online in this case)
  2. Build relevant vocabulary for the unit (plus, in my glossary of, “Words you may not know,” I included, “Places You May Not Know” with links)
  3. Engage the thought-processes, problems, and decision-making challenges of the historical era
  4. Engage these within a realistic fiction of actual historical events and persons, based on primary document evidence

This is a pretty useful way for students to engage the familiar and the strange in a the foreign culture they are studying.  (It is also a useful exercise for the educator who creates the CYOAS–assuming, of course, that it’s done right.)

It was thanks to Glenn Wiebe’s post, “Gaming the Past: How to Teach with Video Games,” that I was introduced to an entirely new and productive approach to teaching history with video games.  (A fact that was strongly recalled to mind when I visited, “The Art of Video Games,” exhibit and learned about the incredible potential of modern video games.)  Upon visiting Glenn’s site with the above link, you will be provided with links to’s posts by Jeremiah McCall on using and creating simulation games in the classroom and the blog, Gaming the Past.  These tools will give you another opportunity to provide an authentic role-playing experience that helps students learn about historical eras, events, or persons.

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A twist…

Students will benefit from playing these games–their knowledge and understanding will increase.  These games are exercises in historical experiences.  That’s useful for learning.  There is another way to approach this, however.  As you will learn from the links, above, software exists to create simulations.  This means you can make games for your students to play, but it also means that the students can make the games!

I have already advocated for this learning experience in previous posts: “Creating Educational Games,” and, “Some advice and tips on creating educational games.”  The same logic can be used in providing students with the necessary tools to create digital simulations and games.  The same knowledge that was required in making my CYOAS, “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade,” would be the researched portion of the project for the students in developing their games.  The same ideas I suggested for board or card games in the above posts could be used to create digital simulations with the software available, today.

In this way, students are not only engaging in role-play learning for eras, but they are doing the necessary research to create a simulated historical era, and learning enough about the habits and ways of a historical period to create problem-solving scenarios in line with the era.  This is an incredibly useful learning experience, a good way to engage the current generation, and valuable experience in traditional history research.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Games

Considering the historical interest of video games, A review of “The Art of Video Games”

Exhibit currently being curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

There is a traveling exhibit that has settled in the Smithsonian American Art Museum through September 30, 2012: The Art of Video Games.  While it is billed as an art exhibit, and it fabulously displays some of the historical evolution of the technology’s art, it does a bit more.  Video games take a lot of heat in the culture, today, because of concerns for screen time, child obesity, and social skills development.  There are elements of this exhibit arguing for a more nuanced evaluation of video games as interactive fiction and that consider the evolution of video games in art, player participation, etc.

Gaming art samples

Of the exhibit’s three sections, it is really the first that is most directly devoted to the art of the games.  This focuses on the both the current conceptual designs and the evolution of the art in games from the early days of gaming history.  In addition, a number of special events were scheduled when this exhibit opened including concerts of video game music and guest speakers discussing art’s evolution into the digital age–of which video games are an important medium.

Gaming concept art

Contributing to the art, the second section of the exhibit showcases the evolution of games featuring Pacman, Mario Brothers 1, The Secret of Monkey Island, MYST 1, and Flowers with their game controllers.  It’s interesting to stroll the room and recognize the evolution of the games from visualization to story line, and from controllers to player options.

Mario Brothers’ beginnings, as being played by a younger, knee-high generation

Flowers is a new wave of game that the knee-high generation plays

The final section is a collection of gaming systems with narratives about their operations and features.  This is a gamer’s Hall of Fame and for many a walk down nostalgia.  I listened to one graying gentleman reminisce to younger companions about playing on the Commodore 64 when he got home in the evenings.  Even high school students, immersed in today’s online gaming, reminisced about the gaming systems of their early youth.

Atari game system and narratives about the system’s gaming operations

PS3 gaming system and narratives about the system’s operations

Throughout the exhibit there are videos of interviews from different video game designers.  They make a case for video games as being interactive fiction that stimulates decision-making skills, problem-solving, and skills-building.  Additionally, the role-playing games, based in many ways off of the old Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, do involve social interaction, though the modern version is admittedly tied to screen time.

QR codes placed near TV flat screens link to the exhibit’s YouTube page

As a display of the genre’s artistic achievements, the exhibit could have done more, including more concept art and addressing more clearly the means by which the 2-D art transitions into a 3-D interactive video game.   One of the most successful displays of the gaming world’s art is the video running at the exhibit’s entrance that features art from a plethora of games and eras. This provided a real array of artistic possibilities for visitors.  Also, the different game images featured with their consoles in the third section makes a pretty cool comparison.  So, that’s my take on the exhibit as an “art exhibit,” which is it what it is doing in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The left-facing wall ran a montage of various video games from all eras, while the three screens on the right-facing wall showed a changing montage people playing video games

The left-facing wall ran a montage of various video games from all eras, while the three screens on the right-facing wall showed a changing montage people playing video games

It bleeds into other fields, though, and I think these need to be addressed.  Games are an interesting record of a society’s leisure time activity.  The record, as provided by this exhibit, demonstrates several things about (video) gaming leisure time: 1) as games have evolved the social activity around them and built into them has increased, 2) some of the newer games have incorporated actually physical activity, 3) the gamer’s options and control of the game’s storyline has dramatically increased, allowing for greater decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity.  These are pretty fascinating developments.  Not only this, but these gaming developments and the technology has leaked into the world beyond entertainment, even including studies in economics–consider gaming theory, for example.

The complexity of current games ranges from the design of the digital artwork to the sophistication of story lines and from increased socialization to greater gamer creativity has evolved mightily since the Pacman arcade, to say nothing of Pong.

The fictional creation is not to be overlooked.  Fiction functions as a primary source for historians researching an era, and these games amplify that possibility by considering not only the storyline of the game’s creators, but the individual storylines that players increasingly have the ability to create and manipulate.  Here is just one extreme example:

In 2004, a player in the MMO [Massively Multiplayer Online (game)] EVE Online declared that the game’s creators had stacked the deck against him, called EVE, “a poorly designed game which rewards the greedy and violent, and punishes the hardworking and honest.” He was upset over a change in the game dynamics which made it easier to play a pirate and harder to play a merchant.

The player, “Dentara Rask,” wrote those words in the preamble to a tell-all memoir detailing an elaborate Ponzi scheme that he and an accomplice had perpetrated in EVE. The two of them had bilked EVE’s merchants out of a substantial fraction of the game’s total GDP and then resigned their accounts. The objective was to punish the game’s owners for their gameplay decisions by crashing the game’s economy.

~ Cory Doctorow, “Why Online Games are Dictatorships,” Information Week (April 16, 2007).

Video games will increasingly fall into the purview of historical investigation.  Does the exhibit address this in its span of gaming history?  Not really, only brushed the edges of what historians will want to investigate, but it may inspire investigative tracks.

As I will discuss in a later post, the potential for role-playing games in teaching is could be a wonderful way to engage and enhance the participation in the field of the younger generation.  Gaming design, as I have already discussed, is an excellent way to engage students without skipping the history work and research, the need to engage primary sources, and deep thought about historical subjects.

I encourage you to take a look at the videos–easily the most substantive element of the entire exhibit–provided below:


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games, Historian's Journal, Reviews

Summer Olympics = Summer Adventures for the Family

This summer, the Summer Olympics are rocking London.  The Olympics are a fascinating source of cultural history.  They also present some great summer opportunities for families.  The marketing machine will be clamoring at a full din before you know it, so most kids will be aware of the Games shortly if they are not already following the lead-up.

Little of the marketing will get your kids doing anything, though (unless you pick up the nifty Great Britain Legos).  And, by now, most of your kids are out of school looking for something to do.  So, if you are looking for summer activities for your kids I have a few suggestions that will get them up and moving and exploring history and the world!

Below, are three ideas for themed exploration.  Try one or all of them!  Included are “Resources” that include links to website–some of these have books or DVDs for purchase, others have films provided.  I did not include specific offline resources for convenience, but they do exist, so check out your local library.

The Greek Olympics

Revisit the past!  The Greeks participated in Olympic Games for religious reasons and political pride.  The Greeks took it very seriously!  Winners were heroes; losers disgraced their city-states.  There were many events especially in what we would describe as field and track events, today.  One of the most important was the Pentathalon: long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, sprint and wrestling match.

Use the period during which the Games are running and host a Greek festival!  After having the kids explore the ancient Greek Olympics via the web or through DVDs or books, collaborate with them to design events for a Greek festival family or neighborhood Olympics.  Work it in and around the schedule of events that folks want to watch and serve classical Greek food (or modern Greek food, if you must, after all we love our baklava).


These resources either focus specifically on the Greek Olympics or include them in more general discussions about the history of the Olympic Games.  While it is likely to expect that many of your standard documentary channels will ramp up coverage as the games approach, there are already some programs available.

Perseus Digital Library Project

The Ancient Olympics

History Channel

The Olympic Games


National Geographic

2012 Summer Olympics

Registration for educational materials

History for Kids

Olympic Games

Food in Ancient Greece

History of Greek Food Blog

History of Greek Food

The Modern Games

2012 London Olympics Pictograms: Silhouette Version

While the above focuses on the ancient history of the games, the Games are also an opportunity to focus on modern history.  In fact, the Olympic Games provide a really unique and informative means for studying some of modern history’s events and conflicts, because the Olympic Games are such an important international stage for competition.

Some of the famous moments include Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin–the same Games in which Jesse Owens dominated the track and field events–preceding World War II, the Cold War Games, the Munich Games in 1972, and China’s games in the last Summer Olympics.  These Olympic Games, being of the modern era, include many of the sports that are still played, today (although the selection of the Games varies year to year).

Once you’ve spent some time looking at all of the challenges involved in the Games, induced by politics and conflict, perhaps the best way to celebrate is with a community sporting event collaboratively hosted by the neighborhood association, church, civic group or other community group.  Have an international potluck, organize some games, and enjoy the day.

Depending on how great the desire is to make it an educational event, families can pick participating countries and look at the current news from that country, answering questions such as: what’s going on politically, how are international relations with other countries, what are the relations like within the host country of “Great Britain,” in which the individual countries that make of up Great Britain are competing as one team?  At the potluck there can be an informational poster-board, international food, etc.


Many of the same resources above, are also useful for the history of the Olympic Games in the modern era.  Below, I’ve added more sources on recent history and the Games.

(This site provides a review and link to a number of useful sites on the topic and may well add an additional set of resources as Games approach.)

Amateur Athletic Foundation Digital Archive

Triumph: Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics


Doping for Gold

Politics and the Olympics

LA84 Foundation

Olympic Oral Histories

LA84 Homepage

Routledge Online Studies on the Olympic and Paraolympic Games


Internet Archive

Jesse Owens radio Interviews from Olympic Games 1936

Sports Illustrated Vault

March 3, 1980 issue

Indonesia Puts on its Games of the Newly Emerging Forces – December 2, 1963

When the Terror Began – August 26, 2002

Gleanings From a Troubled Time – December 25, 1972

The International Games

Of course, one can simply take the time to delve into the international culture of the Olympic Games and highlight different countries and their athletes.  This can be less historical and more of a modern survey for your family, though history can still be included.

There are different ways to do this:

  • Make individual country profiles for each day of the Games (family members can help with this)
  • Have international dinners during the days of the Games and at each meal recap that country’s accomplishments from that day of the Games, or create a running score board for the countries you chose in advance
  • Assign each family member a particular country to investigate, follow and share with the rest of the family
  • Host an Olympic Games-themed party or picnic and have each guest/family pick a different country, supplying ethnic cuisine at the potluck, bringing a flag and an informative printout or poster about the countries–families can compete in a mini-Olympics, follow their countries throughout the Games, etc.
The Olympic Games will be the sporting event of the summer while they are on, but interestingly the Summer Games are not followed as closely by as many folks as the Winter Games.  With so many summer activities, the events’ results are often followed more closely than the events themselves.  This means it is easy to have them on in the background while doing other things–like picnics and parties!


While enjoying the Games there are number of resources for results, events, and country information.

2012 Summer Olympic Games Coverage

Olympic Games Movement

NBC’s coverage

ESPN’s coverage

BBC Sport – Olympics

Team USA

Country information

CIA’s World Factbook

BBC Country Profiles

* * * * *

Enjoy the summer with Summer Games!  Compete against each other in friendly competition for swimming, biking, running, H.O.R.S.E., soccer penalty kicks, canoeing or kayaking, or invent your own events etc.!  Create decathlons or find a local adventure race–and be sure to drink water, wear sunscreen, and eat!  Have fun!

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Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games, Sports

How to Raise a Marylander — a REQUEST for written guides to your state, city or region!

How to Raise a Marylander.

This article (linked above) was posted online at the Chesapeake Family Magazine’s website.  It covers the cultural “musts” for the children raised in the region.  This includes recreation, history, cuisine, and more.  We should all make such a list–maybe even more detailed–about our regions and states!  It’s a great help for transplants like my family, and also a point of pride for locals (although, I stray at the bottom when they start talking about sports teams, somethings are irreplaceable).

I would love to see your guides to raising residents of your state, city or region!  E-mail me ( 100-250 word guide about the food, places, history and experiences that are must for the place you know and love best!  Bloggers, home-schoolers and student submissions welcome!!  I will post them on the blog.  See the directions below:

  1. Put “How to Raise a ___” (using your state, region or city in the blank) into the subject heading.
  2. Type or copy and paste your submission into the e-mail body with any pictures.  DO NOT ATTACH ANYTHING TO THE E-MAIL.
  3. Include a brief bio about yourself, max. 50 words.
  4. Look for a reply from in your inbox to confirm receipt and to let you know if I will be posting it on the blog.  If I do post your submission on the blog, I will categorize it under “Guest posts” with your bio and give you credit.
  5. Have fun!


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Some advice and tips on creating educational games

This post gives you some practical tips and advice for creating a functional educational game.  Whether you are inventing the game that your students will play or assigning them a project to make an educational game, these are some useful tips to guide you through the process of both game creation and production.  I have culled these from experience and other advice I have picked up along the way.  If you aren’t yet convinced of the educational value of these, read my earlier post about some of the advantages.

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Creating the game play and rules:

  1. A theme: the game should have a directed theme.  This should be pretty easy since you are linking it to an educational concept or unit, but you may need to review the game theme of your students who might need help focusing it.  Here are some examples, anyway:  If you assigned a fiction reading or movie with your history unit this could also be a good way to have the students interlace it into your history unit.  You could focus on a particular set of primary sources and have them create a game out of it.  You could also ask students to create a game based on a particular battle or an economics game based the unit’s trade system.  You could ask students to consider different players or cultures from a unit and represent each according to their differences and similarities in the game (think Life or Scategories).  Or, you could challenge the students to come up with their own theme from the units after offering some suggestions or provide options that they could select.
  2. Establish the object of the game: Every game has an objective for each player.  In the game of Life, you are trying to acquire wealth; in the game of Monopoly, you are trying to acquire wealth and drive your opponents into bankruptcy; in the game of Risk, you are trying to take over the world while conquering the armies of the other players; in the game of Scrabble, you are trying to earn points by creating the longest or most point-laden words; in the game of Clue, you are trying to establish whodunnit based on logic and elimination; in the game of Scattegories, you are trying to gain points by filling the most categories with words starting from the letter you’ve been assigned; etc.  Each game will need a goal for which the players are aiming to attain.
  3. Advancement in the game:  Related to the above point, the steps need to be put in place that will allow players to progress through game play to the objective.  Is it by rolling the dice or spinning a spinner, making decisions, answering trivia, performing an act or drawing a picture?  It may also be necessary to work out the minimum and maximum number of people that will needed for game in this phase, and likely the general board design or card types–depending on how the game evolves.
  4. Game’s ending:  This may seem obvious, but depending on how the game has been set up it may be trickier than you might think.  Does the game end once the first player has reached the objective, or does it end once everyone has reached the objective and the winner is determined through a comparison of points, acquisitions, etc.?  Some games are a winner-takes-all sort of deal, while others may be more of an everyone-wins type of game but with different results or products.  With the latter concept, think about a game that involves more of a role-playing feel,wherein the objectives for each player vary slightly depending on character/culture/occupation the player has adopted.  (For example, let’s say you are creating a colonial American game in which a player might represent a tribe, a governmental body–such as England or a colony, a religious minority–such as the Quakers or Catholics, individual frontier pioneers or city people–such as one you may have studied with primary sources, and slaves or indentured servants: different objectives would be in place for each group, and different obstacles might have a greater toll on different groups.  Therefore, if you are progressing through a game board, there may simply be a built-in ending point and once each player has reached that point the results are compared for how successfully each player did.  The measurements could include health, wealth, population, legislation, etc., to determine each players’s success.  Or, the game may play end up being more of a role-playing card game where players seek to build their decks in order to play.  These have a less obvious end point and are often played continuously unless a player dies or loses their deck in more cut-throat versions, however for a classroom-created version there would be no way to purchase more cards and endlessly expand the deck, thereby allowing for the end of the game to be established either by loss of cards, inability to play, death of character, or another generic end point.)
  5. Rules:  This another obvious one, but it can create problems if the rules do not allow for a logical play of game (such as a game board where a spinner or one die makes more sense than two dice, i.e., the maximum advancement in one turn should 6 or lower, instead of 12 or lower), render certain steps meaningless (for example, if the there is money used in the game, but it serves little to no purpose because the ultimate objective can be reached without it or because there is not enough means for gaining more money while the game requires that it be spent), or create a scenario where the endgame comes to quickly or slowly.  The best way to avoid this difficulty is actually to develop a working prototype well before the production of the final project.  This segues nicely into my next set of tips.

The above is advice for game creation.  Below, are tips for successful game production.

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Game Production

  1. The Prototype:  This is essential in any game-making process!!  The prototype allows one both to create a draft for the final game board, but also to create a method for playing the game to work out the kinks that might sneak up in the above phase and thus avoid rules that interfere objectives, allow for a solid endgame, etc.  This step cannot be skipped!  Too many things can go wrong in the board appearance or game play, so this draft phase must take place.  As with other assigned projects, it also provides a logical mid-point deadline to make sure everyone is progressing at the necessary pace.
  2. Game pieces:  These need to be designed and constructed.  There are numerous ways to make figurines or acquire pawns such as the following: put stickers on thick cardboard or foam board and cut them out, kidnap them from another board game rescued from a thrift store or garage sale, carve them out of balsa wood or use a Dremel and make wooden pieces, reuse and recycle items from the house (bottle caps, pieces from other games or toy sets, buttons, pins, holiday decorations, etc.), Lego people, etc.  The more these fit with the theme the more fun they are.  For example, let’s say the theme is America in the Cold War, pieces could include an old Coca Cola bottle cap, representing capitalist economics; a peace symbol or smiley face pin; an astronaut or Apollo mission equipment; an American flag; a Soviet flag; a Chinese flag; a miniature book that could be a Playbill or a miniature director’s “cut” board; indicating the Red Scare investigations into actors; an “I Like Ike” button; a domino, representing the “Domino Theory” in Asia; a hockey figurine in red or red, white, and blue; an Olympic flag; a miniature globe or world map; a missile; a submarine; a toy car from the era; a miniature nuclear fallout shelter sign; a toy bomber plane; etc.
  3. Board design:  I recommend purchasing some blank game boards (I found a couple websites that sell these for a few bucks plus shipping, see below), otherwise, white poster board will suffice and you can make it more sturdy by gluing it to two pieces (one for each half of the board game) of corrugated cardboard (which can be covered in cloth, wrapping paper, or adhesive liners) so that it can still be folded down the middle.  In decorating the board, I recommend typing, printing, and pasting squares or other features down on the surface.  You can also print onto Avery stickers with Microsoft Word products that bypass the pasting requirement.  Talented artists may be able to do something more elaborate and those skills should definitely be tapped if they are available, but not assumed.  The prototype should have provided clues for the placement and proportions–another reason that it is critical!  Another possibility is taking an old board game from a thrift store or garage sale and simply spray-painting a neutral color over it to create a new board.  If the game is a card game than one can try using index cards or spray-painting a purloined set of cards from another game or deck (though some materials will be difficult to paint) and pasting down printed pieces or stickers.  As with blank board games, blank card sets also exist (again see below).
  4. Printing up final directions: These can be made into a simple rule book that goes with the game and its pieces, or can be written up in an essay that explains the game play and the educational value of the game and its play.  For example, historical knowledge may be required, skills that our culture has gained from the historical cultural might be demonstrated, antiquated skills or rituals may be required, etc.  Or, role-playing games may recreate the narratives of past people from either specific individuals found in primary sources or invented characters based on primary source (and potentially secondary source) research.  If it is a game that you created for the students to play, than the necessary reading(s) would be built into the assignment of playing the game.  (Note: if you create a few games for small groups to learn and teach each other early in the semester/school year, then you may plant creative seeds for students to tap in a later assignment in which they create their own games.  I love creating things like this, so I would want to do both, personally, but I am not everybody!)

Once that’s all been done, the next thing to do is host a game night!  It’s a great way to bring parents in if you are a classroom teacher; a great way to bring investors in if you are in museum education or historical site education programs; a great excuse to throw a party if you are in home schooling.

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Game-making resources

Check out your standard craft, hobby, and office supply stores if you are making your games from scratch.  If you would like to purchase blanks, check out the sites below:

And, individual game products can be acquired through Amazon, such as:

Books about making games:


Collaborative Opportunities

History and social studies classes can team up with other teachers’ classes.  Art teachers are an obvious collaboration, but for narrative-based games, also think about English and language arts teachers who may help students create narratives for the game.  Computer or tech teachers may be able to help with graphic design for game boards, boxes, or cards.  Shop teachers may help with game piece design where applicable.  These are could opportunities to introduce other disciplines and problem-solving for students.

Make sure to invite these teachers to the game night!


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games

My National Geographic Magazine project

In this post, I am sharing my National Geographic assignment.  This is especially useful in generating multi-disciplined assignments and projects.  I use it for home school, but it could easily be adapted to history, anthropology, English, social studies, language arts, or related subjects–the reading level is higher, obviously, so if you are doing it with younger kids, enlist the help of parents or reading coaches.  It also makes a pretty good extra credit assignment, if you do that.

The purpose is to get the student to read one of the articles and then engage in the content at a higher level.  Whether the student reads further, creates fiction based on the article, or is artistically inspired, he or she is reworking the content of the article into his or her own project.

This is a great way to expose students to science, history, sociology, travel, and culture beyond their classrooms!  Once they’ve tapped into the pictures and maps, the story becomes hard to resist.  Each article is a kind of field trip (almost) and it should capture students’ imaginations and fuel their curiosity–for life.

(Additional tip for history use:  Assign older Nat. Geo. magazines from a period you are studying–the old Life magazines work well, too–so, students could, for example, read about the Space Race as it was unfolding.  Now, you’ve advanced it to a primary source project!)

National Geographic Assignment

Directions:  Read the current issue of National Geographic Magazine and do one of the following activities using an article of your choice from that issue:

  • Write a short story
  • Make a board game
  • Write a play
  • Do a related experiment
  • Further reading
  • Write a short report
  • Make a travel brochure
  • Do an art project
  • Invent a product or service
  • Write a blog post
  • Write a letter to the author or someone in the article
  • Make an informative map or chart explaining an aspect of the article
  • Create a storyboard for a short movie or documentary inspired by the article
  • Draw one of the photographs from the article
  • Write a speech
  • Make a cartoon strip
  • Write a song or poem
  • Make a PowerPoint explaining the article or an aspect of the article
  • Create a glossary or encyclopedia entries for the article
  • Design a craft project inspired by the article
  • Create a non-profit/fundraising service idea to address an issue raised in the article
  • Prepare a meal inspired by the article

These projects also make good “show” projects when highlighting the class’s  work or an individual student’s accomplishments.  Stories, artwork, and other projects may be used for contests or projects beyond the school or home school.

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Creating educational games

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Board games can be designed to teach many subjects and principles alongside the competitive objectives.  As a kid, my parents introduced a German board game called “Deutschlandreise,” which means “German travel” or “German vacation,” as a way to get me excited about our trips to visit family in Germany.  In essence, the objective was to complete your travel itinerary, which directed you to several cities on the board–a map of Germany.  As you “visited” each city, you learned about some of the city’s highlights.  It is a Cold War era game, so while travel through the GDR was included in the game, the borders were clear on the map and provided a useful talking point for my folks when we played the game.

I think one of the best ways to utilize board games in the classroom is to ask students to create one on your subject.  For example, a Greek unit could cover a great deal, but let’s say it covered the following subjects:

  • Homer – The Illiad, The Odyssey
  • Athens – democracy, philosophy, orators
  • Sparta – the 300, the military state
  • Hellenism – drama, history, city-building, agoras and commerce
  • Conflicts – two wars with the Persians, the Peloponessian War
  • Alexander the Great

A game could be designed that focuses on any one of these subjects, or on multiple subjects.  For example, a game could be made on Odysseus and his travels designed somewhat like the game of Life, with a map and a winding path that includes the many challenges he and his companions faced.  A Risk type of game could be adopted for Alexander the Great.  Or, a Monopoly style board could be created in which each color, instead of being purchasable properties, could be one of the subjects above.  Instead of acquiring the colors through purchasing, you would gain them through answering questions.  Similarly, anybody landing on your colored spaces would have to answer questions, with a more difficult questions being reached as more of the colors are acquired, i.e. a “monopoly” is earned.  Failing to answer questions correctly would result in loss of points, much like paying cash in Monopoly.  There is also always a simple Trivial Pursuit spin-off as well.

Of course, many games can be created without resorting to existing favorites.  They can be based on commerce, battles, knowledge, or Greek “skills” such as drama, oratory, philosophy, history and art (something like Cranium comes to mind, here).  Small groups could be assigned a specific feature from the above list so that a variety of games are created and can be played and shared.  Parents could be brought in for a class game night and Greek food could be part of the experience (there are numerous resources for historically-based recipes).  Alternatively, the teacher could establish a particular theme and the game development could be a classroom activity.

How does this help your student learn about history?  By delving into the subject enough to establish game objectives, students hit numerous points on Dale’s Cone of Experience, building off of classroom learning: listening, reading, writing/creating.  I recommend an accompanying essay that functions both as a “how-to” with the directions, plus an explanation of what historical elements the game recreates and teaches.  If you encourage the students to go for authenticity and professional presentation, they will usually go all out.  Collaborate with the art teacher who will be able to help them with materials and supplies.  You may want to also collaborate with the English or Language Arts teacher on the “how-to” essay or in coming up with a “story-outline” for the game–but many very good games could be designed that do not follow a specific storyline.

Games have also been an essential part of leisure time throughout history.  Many historically created games have been recreated and are available, today.  While many of these were gambling games, many were akin to our modern board games.  Mancala or similar games were played in many places in the ancient world.  The Vikings played Hnefatafl–like chess, but where one player has a greater advantage–sort of like Leonides and the 300 versus the Persians!  And, of course, there is chess which has gone through many evolutions before being played the way we know today, each informative about the culture.  These games can also be incorporated into teaching, but it is a considerably different experience from students creating a game based on history and sharing that with their peers.

Or, you could play the Viking game of Hnefatafl.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games