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Make It Good and Good For You: Creating Games and Activities that Teach

Games are more than child’s play. They are one way in which children learn about their culture and what is expected of them within that culture. Games also are an excellent way for museums and other such institutions to make learning fun.

In many cases, games already exist that can be used to teach within the museum setting. Rolling a hoop, making tin-can stilts, turning cornhusks into dolls — games and toys of yesteryear at a history museum or historic site can help young visitors recreate the experiences of children from a different time. Books and internet sites describe hundreds of games played by youngsters in various Native American tribes that can duplicated at historic sites with ties to specific tribal groups. David C. King’s American Kids in History series provides games, activities, crafts, and recipes from each of six different eras in American history— colonial, pioneer, Civil War, wild west, Victorian, and World War 11 — that can be adapted to a museum setting. Playing one of the multitude of simulation games found in publications from Project Learning Tree, Project Wild, and/or Project Aquatic Wild is an outstanding way for nature centers, zoos, and aquariums to let children explore complex concepts about the world around them. Earth Child 2000: Earth Science for Young Children: Games, Stories, Activities and Experiments by Kathryn Sheehan and Mary Waidner is also a valuable resource for science museums, botanical gardens, parks, and nature centers.

Some games and activities are useful, as well as fun, in many different venues. Re-creating a thaumatrope at a history museum allows children to play with one of the more popular “toys” of the 1800’s. Making one within a science museum can help children understand concepts about the brain and senses. Creating this “moving picture” in an art museum gives children the opportunity to put their artistic talents to work and to discover the sense of movement present within still images.

Many common childhood games, such as “Twenty-One” (a.k.a. – “I Spy” or “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral”) and treasure hunts can be easily adapted to use with the art, specimens, and artifacts of many museum collections. Such games teach children facts about the collection as well as helping them practice careful observation. In a follow-up activity, children can be encouraged to create board games that incorporate aspects of the museum tour they’ve just completed.

Sometimes, though, just the right game may not exist until some creative docent “invents” it. To develop a game or activity that is unique to your collection, try the following steps.

Examine your state education agency’s curriculum standards for both process skills and concepts.

This may mean looking in areas of the curriculum that are not directly related to the stated mission of your institution. For example, it’s pretty obvious that there are concepts in social studies curriculum that can come to life through the exhibits of a history museum or historic site. Many process skills from math, language arts, and science, however, cross curriculum lines and also can be taught effectively in a history museum.

Select a process skill or concept that you can teach with your collection.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for fourth graders in language arts and reading mandates that the successful student listens critically to analyze and evaluate a speaker’s message. In order to achieve this skill, the student is expected to distinguish between the speaker’s opinion and verifiable fact. This process skill, which is probably part of the standards of most state education systems, could be easily taught in a museum, where facts and opinion are everyday tools of the trade.

Consider the learning characteristics for those students in the grade level you’ve chosen.

Upper elementary children, such as those in the fourth grade, are curious. They love to explore. They love to touch and take things apart. They are very energetic. Even while they are listening, they may be moving some part of their body. In other words, they are active learners.

They enjoy being with their peers, and they like to work together to plan and carry out activities. They want the approval of both their peers and adults. They appreciate begin given opportunities to perform within their abilities.

Think of games you and your audience are already familiar with.

An excellent source of common childhood games is This web site lists and describes more than one hundred classic games. The games are listed by category (e.g. – ball, chasing, circle, international, etc.) or can be accessed by name. Such games that can be adapted to new situations are ideal since most children will already be familiar with the basic rules.

Put it all together.

Using a standard “treasure hunt” format, a game called “Fact or Opinion Collection” can be created for almost any type of museum setting (as long as there is space for movement and guards that don’t object to a little childish noise.) This game allows fourth graders to move around, work with their peers and independently, adapt information to new situations, and succeed in a non-threatening environment. It gives them an opportunity to learn the difference between facts and opinions while learning some facts about art, historic objects, scientific specimens, zoo animals, or other artifacts.

A Sample Activity

The Fact or Opinion Collection

Materials: a small clipboard, paper, and pencil for each team (If “real” clipboards are unavailable, substitutes can be made with heavy cardboard and a large paperclip.)

Players: The class or touring group is divided into teams of from 3 to 5 members. The game works best with a group (12 to 30 children) that allows at least 3 teams. Each team is given a clipboard with paper and pencil attached. Each team should select one child to be the recorder and carry the clipboard.

Procedure: Team members should listen to the docent-directed tour for both facts and opinions. After each gallery or exhibit, the docent allows no more than 3 minutes for each team to record at least one fact and one opinion they heard during the discussion. At the end of the complete tour, each team, in turn, reads the facts they have collected. With docent help, the entire group should verify each as a fact. The team receives one point for each verifiable fact they recorded. Then each team, in turn, reads the opinions they have collected. Again, they receive a point for each opinion the group “accepts.” The team with the greatest total points wins the game and applause from the other teams.

Try it out on real kids.

Practice the game you have developed, as well as those you’ve borrowed from other sources, before you use it in a tour. Work with other docents to perfect the logistics of your game. Where will it be played? How long does it take to play? Where does it fit in your overall tour? How can the directions be given most clearly and concisely?

When you think the game is ready for “real kids,” ask a teacher with whom you’ve worked and whose judgment you value to let you test it on her class. Let the kids in on the process. Tell them you need their input, and listen to their suggestions. Make changes in the game or in the directions as needed.

Put it in the program.

Once you have a game that teaches a concept or process skill, make it part of your regular tours. Make teachers aware of this new part of the program so they can include the concept or process skill in their field trip application. Continue to refine. Playing games is the natural business of children. Using games to teach in a museum setting is a natural way to make learning fun…and effective.

A Sample of Game Resources

Gartenhaus, Alan. Minds in Motion: Using Museums to Expand Creative Thinking. Caddo Gap Press, 1997.

Jenks, Marian. Teachers Handbook of Children’s Games: A Guide to Developing Perceptual-Motor Skills. Prentice Hall, 1976.

King, David C. American Kids in History series. John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Project Learning Tree. Environmental Education Activity Guide. American Forest Foundation, 1993.

Scarbro, Maxine. One Room School Games: Children’s Games of Yesteryear. Quarrier Press, 1991.

Shehan, Kathryn and Mary Waidner. Earth Child 2000: Earth Science for Young Children: Games, Stories, Activities, and Experiments. Council Oak Distribution, 1998.

Swain, Ann. How to Make Children’s Games that Make Learning Fun, Easy, and Successful. Pound Publishing, 1984.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Make It Good and Good For Your!: Creating Games and Activities that Teach,” The Docent Educator 10.4 (Summer 2001): 16-19.



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