Tag Archives: play

Building Blocks 2.0

pile of cell phones

If I told you we were going to play a game by stacking a bunch of smart phones and moving them around, you might get a picture in your head like the one above.  But there is actually a simpler, more fun way to go about this.

Last weekend, I discovered Scrabble Flash in the toy aisle of my local grocery store :

Each of the five game pieces is a small, location-aware blockwith a screen that displays a letter.  By rearranging the blocks, words are formed.  The blocks are all aware of each other, so they can tell you when you have them arranged to spell a word.   Several different games can be played with this remarkable little interface.  Apparently, Scrabble Flash was released in time for Christmas last year, but I didn’t notice it until now.  For about $30, I may have to pick this up for myself.

When I first saw Scrabble Flash, I thought it might be a commercial manifestation of Siftables, a similar interface designed by an MIT student that I wrote about a couple of years ago after seeing this TED talk.  It turns out that Siftables are now Sifteo:

Both Scrabble Flash and Sifteo are block-like computers that are aware of the others in their set.  Scrabble Flash is not as robust with only three games available on the monochrome display.  But it is available now and the price is reasonable.  Sifteo blocks are full-color screens that are motion sensitive and connect to a computer wirelessly, which means more games can be downloaded as they are developed.  But they won’t be available until later this year and I suspect the price will be higher than Scrabble Flash.

Is this the future of language games?  That would be a pretty bold prediction.  But clearly as we all become more accustomed to using apps on our smartphones, these kinds of “toys” will begin to feel like a very familiar technology.  Scrabble Flash is an affordable entry point, but I’m excited that Sifteo is actively seeking developers to create more games.  They already have several learning games but there is potential for many more.

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Game-Based Mashups

love spelled in playing cards

I love a good boardgame and I love a good mashup.  So, when I read about the Boardgame Remix Kit on GeekDad, I had to write about it.  I don’t own the kit (which comes in ebook, book, card, and app form) yet, but I did take a check out the free Valentine’s Edition download, which looks like a lot of fun.

The first game, WLTM Humpty Dumpty is a kind of madlibs game in which players create personal adds based on Trivial Pursuit cards (WLTM = Would Like To Meet).  The second turns Monopoly into a game of Divorce! in which players use their money to pay lawyers to fight over property.  (I have to admit, my first reaction to this game was that it might be about as much fun as going through a real divorce, but after reading the rules, there is some strategy involved that could be fun to play.)  The other two games are based on Scrabble and Clue.

How can these games be used in a classroom?  Like other forms of media (books, movies, music, etc.), there are several ways in which these games can be used.  Students can play them and report back on their experience.  This could be as simple as Was it fun? and How do you play? to evaluating whether the game accurately simulated real life.  For example, was Divorce! similar to a real divorce?  Why or why not?  Students could also compare the original version of the game to the mashup version.  Finally, students could use these mashups as inspiration to seek out other versions of existing board games or even to create their own.  All of these could be fun ways to practice English on Valentine’s Day.

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Walking Through Caves

cave

Games present an interesting environment in which students can learn and practice a language.  The Cave is an interesting game that was created for a Sony Pictures movie back in 2005.  I came across it on a recent timely post on Digital Play — just in time for Halloween and just after 33 miners were rescued from a mining collapse in Chile.  (Obviously, a teacher will need to determine whether this is an appropriate game for younger students.)

Digital Play is a great resource for online games for students because each one is couched in a simple lesson plan with suggestions for whether the game is appropriate for a classroom, computer lab, or independent use. Interestingly, Digital Play includes a walkthrough — a solution to the game — in the form of a diary account of the only survivor, which they player can become upon completion of the game.

Many games have walkthroughs available online.  Most are created by users or fans and some are created collaboratively as the game is solved.  Walkthroughs are very popular with the latest cutting edge games that can take tens of hours to complete, but solutions are available for almost every game.  Just Google the name of the game along with terms like walkthrough, solution, or help.

The way the walkthrough used in the case of The Cave is a very creative solution.  It can serve as additional reading for students to support their understanding as well as assisting students in completing the game.  Walkthroughs can also be good resources for teachers who want to support students that get stuck on one part of a game.  In a language classroom, getting stuck actually presents an opportunity for students to interact with each other by making requests and helping each other, so a teacher jumping in with the solution should not be the first resort.  In fact, it has been argued that walkthroughs ruin the experience of a good game because it can be too easy to look for the answer instead of working to solve the problem for oneself.  But, for teachers who are nervous about using games in the classroom, it’s good to know that solutions are available.

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The Good Old Days

meccano close-up

My four-year-old and I have been regularly tuning in to James May’s Toy Stories on BBC America.  Truth be told, I watched all of the episodes myself and now we have been watching the reruns together.  She loves Thomas the Train so we started with the episode on model trains and have since made it a weekly ritual.

Each week, James May, of Top Gear fame, takes a different toy that was popular before the advent of video games and reintroduces it to the British public through a large scale stunt.  Examples include building a full-scale house out of Lego, a 3-mile-long slot-car track following one of Britain’s first racetracks, and a 10-mile-long model train track following an old seaside rail route.

A Meccano bridge.

A bridge made of Meccano.

Most recently, we watched the episode on Meccano, a toy construction set made of metal strips, nuts and bolts, and assorted gears.  I had a set as a kid and it was a real challenge.  To be honest, I was more into Lego, but later became much more interested in Meccano-like nuts and bolts.

One of the Meccano aficionados that May talks to points out several reasons that the toy is no longer as popular as it was around the world wars when, perhaps not coincidentally, the world looked much more like Meccano.  I have paraphrased them, if not quoted them directly, below:

  • Mecanno is metal.  Today’s medium is plastic.
  • Mecanno is angular.  Today’s things are compound curves.
  • You can repair it by changing out one of the bits.  Today we replace whole units, which are designed to be disposable.
  • He concludes, “It is out of kilter with modern life.”

As an educator who likes to adapt technology to my needs and the needs of my students, I am a bit discouraged by the fact that most technology has evolved along these lines.  Not long ago, machines and even computers were designed so that the user could repair them if necessary.  Now things are designed so that they are easy to use, but we are discouraged from “looking under the hood.”  Even computer games, programmed by the user a generation ago, are now typically very difficult to adapt and modify.

What are we losing by not tinkering with things and learning how to repair them ourselves?  What are the implications for our students if we tell them, “Just use it, don’t worry about how it works?”

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

One of the saddest parts of the Meccano episode, at least to me, was when May visits the new Meccano factory to reveal how their new toys incorporate remote-controlled cars and robots to which Meccano pieces can be attached.  In fact, one of the Meccano designers argues that today’s kids need to have simpler toys.

Clearly, I’m a person who likes to make things.  I’m not saying everyone should make their own houses, cars, and food (though I like to).  But by conceding that we can not or should not, what are we losing?  And by relaying this message to our children and our students, in what ways are we limiting them and their curiosity?

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Siftables: Perfect for the Sandbox

A colleague of mine, Kathy, and I have been discussing ways to create a language sandbox game.  This idea would be to create blocks with words on them that somehow interact in a way that demonstrates grammaticality.

Siftables work like colored blocks, but they can interact.

Siftables work like colored blocks, but they can interact.

Kathy’s oldschool.  She’s been experimenting with blocks of wood painted different colors which students can manipulate.  Great for kinesthetic learners!  We discussed cutting them into puzzlepiece shapes so that each block only “fits” other words according to grammatical rules.  At first, it seems like it would be possible to make nouns with square tabs that fit into square slots on verbs, and so on.  However, as complexity increases, this becomes exponentially more difficult.  Structures as complex as nouns modified by multiple adjectives would be prohibitively difficult.

What if a computer application could be developed that would replace the wood blocks with word tiles that could be manipulated with a mouse (or an interactive whiteboard!)?  Could the tiles snap together and repel each other like magnets according to grammar rules?  Could words be tagged for part-of-speech automatically within the application?  Could different categories of words (verbs, adjectives, adverbs, specifiers, etc.) be added and deleted with the check of a box?  Could students add their own tiles seemlessly into the pile?  Clearly, some intelligence would be required of the application to implement all of these features.

Siftables might just be perfect for an language sandbox.

Siftables react to each other. Imagine a word on each one.

As I was kicking all of this around, my friend Mike at Ohio University pointed me to siftables, which seem to be the synthesis of both ideas.  Rather than try to describe these brilliant little devices, watch the TED Talks video.

Not only could these little devices fit the bill perfectly, the way they interact could inform interactions in the language sandbox I’ve been envisioning.  Until we’ve all got pockets full of siftables to pass out in class, my $50 wiimote-based interactive whiteboard will have to do.  In the meantime, I’m hoping that having students drag word tiles across the screen will work almost as well for kinesthetic learners.

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