elementary school age boy playing with toy game parts

How Game Design Fosters STEAM Learning and Promotes Dynamic Play

  • Gameplay offers tremendous benefits for children’s development and education:

    1. Planning
    2. Creativity
    3. Strategy
    4. Abstract Thinking
    5. Critical Thinking
    6. Cooperation & Analysis

Building, creating, and testing are elements of play that help children learn core STEM concepts. By touching, moving, and manipulating objects in front of them, children become more aware of their environment and gain a greater capacity for cooperation, critical thinking, and problem solving.

In fact, some of the world’s best designers, architects, and engineers enjoyed a developmental advantage when exposed to these ideas at a very early age.

Another activity that promotes critical skills is game design. This is the art of applying design and game mechanics to create a game for just about any purpose, whether entertainment, educational, exercise, or experimentation.

Designing games, including indoor or outdoor, is a great way to learn STEM/STEAM skills and promote a rare combination of creativity and critical thinking. Following are some tips for designing games with your children and students, along with the expected learning at each phase of this process.

STEP 1STEP 1: Choose an Objective or Goal (Planning)

Every classic game you’ve ever played was designed with an objective or goal in mind. In Chess, the objective is to capture your opponent’s King before your own King is taken. In Scrabble, the objective is to use letter tiles to spell words that score the most points. In Connect 4, the goal is to line up four of your pieces in a row before your opponent does so.

In every one of these games, an objective had to be established before any game components or rules could be formulated. When creating a game, it’s important to choose an objective so players know what they have to achieve, whether it’s to collect the most tokens or build the tallest structure. This process is optimal for teaching skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and planning.

TIP: When working with a child to design a game, first brainstorm an objective. Is the goal to capture your opponent’s pieces? Or – reach a particular location? Get the most points? The great thing about this process is that there are virtually no incorrect or bad ideas.

STEP 2STEP 2: Build a Board (Creativity)

From Monopoly to Risk to Candyland, many classic games have incredibly unique game boards. The designers of these games envisioned a board (or game arena) on which to play and achieve the game’s objective.

In Monopoly, the board is made up of various properties to purchase, as well as additional spaces with directions such as “Advance to Go.” Additionally, movement around the board is determined by the roll of a dice — but it could just as easily be determined by picking a random numbered card!

TIP: Once you have chosen a game objective, aim to build a board that allows players to reach that goal. If the goal is to acquire tokens or currency, designate spots, or opportunities to do so. If the goal is to build a structure, create a playing arena and pieces that support this objective.

STEP 3STEP 3: Determine a Rule Set for Play (Strategy)

The foundation of any game are its rules. The set of rules answers the question “How do you play?” In Chess, rules center the specific moves that each piece can make — for example, bishops move diagonally while rooks move in a straight line. Simon Says requires players to repeat ordered light patterns that become longer and longer as the game goes on.

Even in games with no particular set of defined rules, like Lego (one of my favorites), the “rules” might revolve around following the directions to build an X-wing fighter, a dinosaur, or a boat.

TIP: When formulating rules for your game, make sure to clearly define them. Then, ensure that all the rules can be followed on the board you have created AND the game’s objective can be reached.

STEP 4STEP 4: Create Gameplay Mechanics (Abstract Thinking)

Once you have selected an objective, built a game playing arena, and have a preliminary set of rules, it’s time to decide on some gameplay mechanics. These might include how pieces are captured, how tokens are collected, or what decisions players might have to make when a certain card appears. For example, in the game Uno, the gameplay mechanics of a Wild Card requires the player who places the card to choose which color the next card must be (red, yellow, blue, or green).

TIP: While creating an objective is the most open-ended element of game design, the further into this process one goes, the more these decisions matter. This is because the mechanics of gameplay must be able to be completed on the game board while following the rule set from Step 3.

STEP 5STEP 5: Select an Outcome Scenario (Critical Thinking)

Any game you’ve ever played has an outcome (or winning) scenario. This may be similar to the game objective, but it could vary slightly from or complement the goal of the game. For instance, in pool, the objective is to hit all your balls into the pockets before your opponent, which is one possible win scenario. However, a player can also win if an opponent hits the 8-ball in before putting their own into the pockets.

TIP: Document all potential outcomes that could lead to a player winning or achieving the objective. In an environment where “winning vs. losing” isn’t a priority like in cooperative games, still be sure to document all potential ways that a goal can be reached.

STEP 6STEP 6: Test … and Test Again! (Cooperation & Analysis)

While Steps 1 through 5 are probably the most fun, Step 6 is the most important. To know if your game really “works” you have to play it with others to verify that the objective(s) can be achieved in the game playing arena under the specific rule set and with the gameplay mechanics you’ve created.

If after playing your game several times, no players have been able to achieve the game’s goal, it might be time to consider adjusting a rule or two or redesigning the playing arena to allow for more opportunities to reach the desired goal. This may mean making the playing arena bigger or smaller, or changing the way certain pieces move to allow for more action.

TIP: You should NEVER be afraid to make mistakes. They indicate you are making progress and refining the final product. Testing is a critical phase that cannot be skipped and should not be rushed.

Done right, your game is always changing or improving, so it’s to be expected that a game doesn’t work perfectly the first time. Just make some tweaks and play again! The best part of this process is watching the game evolve in real time.

The Game That’s Also a Game Design LaboratoryThe Game That’s Also a Game Design Laboratory

Are you a parent or teacher who wants to bring these techniques into their curriculum, but don’t know where to start? Consider Gridopolis, a 3D strategy game and customizable game system I created. It took our team several years of designing, prototyping, and testing to get everything working well, and we’d like to share this work with others.

Gridopolis Games    For further assistance, we have developed the world’s first step-by-step Game Design Guide that is now available for free. It shows players how to use Gridopolis’ modular game parts and rules to design their very own original game from scratch. The guide also includes a checklist for students to document and share their creations with others. Learn more here.

  • Gameplay offers tremendous benefits for children’s development and education:

    1. Planning
    2. Creativity
    3. Strategy
    4. Abstract Thinking
    5. Critical Thinking
    6. Cooperation & Analysis

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