Fun leads to mastery in game-based education

Some of the most innovative, forward-looking alternative learning experiences for kids today are built on the notion of games and gaming. Edutopia, the teaching and learning website, even has a Pinterest board devoted to game-based learning. Many commercial games that teach biology, math, history, geography, and every other subject imaginable are infiltrating traditional classrooms, and for particular subjects or problems, that makes a lot of sense. But for this blog post, I wanted to look at why educators would create an entire curriculum based on gaming.

Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

In New York City an innovative school for grades 6–12 called Quest to Learn is an evolving project to improve kids’ learning, empathy, and collaboration skills. In reading about Quest, I learned the basic tenets of the gaming approach—and then I was lucky enough to interview Austin’s own Cheryl Kruckeberg, who has been advocating for game-based education and running Game of Village, a program based on these tenets, for years.

Quest’s founders, a nonprofit group called the Institute of Play, created an alternative, publicly funded “school of choice” entirely focused on games for a few key reasons, including:

  • Games ask us to collaborate with others and learn by doing.
  • In a game, teachers and students can see immediately whether they are succeeding or failing and can go back and try again, or “iterate.” Failing is an important part of learning in any game, and (unlike a failing grade in a traditional classroom) helps motivate kids to keep trying.
  • Learning happens by doing!
  • Everyone gets to participate and contribute something unique to the process.
  • Feedback happens in the moment, not days or weeks later in an exam.
A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

My talk with Austin’s Cheryl Kruckeberg reinforced many of the notions above with real-life examples from Game of Village. Cheryl says that one of the best things about learning through play is that the consequences aren’t dire, so kids can go all out to win, but if they lose or make mistakes, it’s just a game. “Tomorrow they come back and try again.”

The problem in most grade-based education, says Cheryl, is that it tells kids that an “F” is a statement about who they are, and that may very well change how they think about themselves. “All of that judgment is gone in the concept of the game,” she explains. Kids are having fun and working together to improve, not anxious about judgment and evaluations from others.

“Play is the modus operandi of learning—the way to knowledge, to intimacy, to relationships with the world and people in it,” Cheryl continues. “Jean Piaget [the pioneering child psychologist] said that play is for the pleasure of mastery, and I think that’s right. Kids will do things for play and bend themselves into pretzels to overcome any challenge for the sheer pleasure of mastering something—to get to the next level in a digital game or board game, for example—when they wouldn’t do that for the sake of rote classroom learning.”

Readers of the blog may have met Cheryl a few months ago, when she wrote a blog post about exactly how Game of Village works—creating an entire alternative village-world on a 1/24 scale, with 3-inch avatars, or “peeps” who inhabit the village. Games ideally last about 25–30 days and include around 25 kids, but the time period can span an intensive five or six weeks, or can be spread out over an entire school year for one day each week.

From a recent Game of Village showcase

From a recent Game of Village showcase

I wondered what kind of learning objectives and structures the Game of Village mentors begin with, and Cheryl explained, “What we do is set some basic take-aways and usually a time period and geographical setting. It’s important to have some parameters, so that kids have something to push against. From there, they have a lot of freedom to explore.”

“Recently, we launched a village of the future, which kids love because of all the gizmos they can try. Our goals were to talk about sustainability and climate, including exploring sustainable living systems. The kids got an invitation to help the inhabitants of a distant planet that had used up all its resources. They had to build a model sustainable village and educate the aliens on how to use it. The kids had to research carbon footprints, carbon capture, how to produce electricity through solar, wind, and wave technology versus fossil fuels—explaining their impacts and long-term viability. They designed homes and civic systems. It’s exciting because the way each village evolves is organic, and the mentors release control of the game to the kids as soon as possible.”

A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

Often the kids in Game of Village are of a similar age—around 10 to 14, but sometimes there are 8-year-olds, and those kids find unique ways of playing the game, says Cheryl. “The older kids get into the heady stuff and deep research, but younger kids do more of the crafting.” Just as in real life, both thinkers and crafters are critical to success.

Cheryl also believes that interactions between the students are invaluable in teaching students about nurturing and supporting each other. “We have kids who begin at a young age and then move into leadership roles as they get older. There are times when something the little ones need to do is a task they can’t handle, so we have older kids who are ‘village mentors in training’ and do safety training that allows them to help younger kids and reinforce their own learning at the same time. Our traditional schools separate kids so much that this important mentoring time is gone, and that’s a huge loss in our society. The Game of Village tries to avoid that separation. Kids need the opportunity to nurture.”

“For me, somewhere along the line education got separated from learning,” Cheryl explains. “People really want to learn, and that distinguishes us as a species. Sparrows will just build nests the same way, over and over—but human beings want to try this, that, and the other thing, always trying new alternatives.” In a nutshell—or an eggshell—this is what game-based learning provides.

Pacifica Village

Pacifica Village

Game of Village kids completed their creation of Pacifica, a sustainable village for the planet Kepler-9D, on May 19 at AHB Community School. Students at Integrity Academy will experience a full unit of Game of Village next year. More information about Game of Village and how your kids can get involved is available here.

And for another fascinating take on role-playing games and learning, check out a recent article by Paul Darvasi for KQED News, about Sword and Sorcery Camps.

Game on!

Shelley Sperry

Game of Village

My work at Alt Ed Austin includes visiting lots of great innovative schools and enrichment programs and getting to see some beautiful ideas in action. There’s no program I love more than Game of Village, so we’re thrilled to have Village director and consultant Cheryl Kruckeberg join us on the blog for a show-and-tell about its educational benefits and sheer delights. Read on to learn how you can get your kids signed up for Village this month!

Village is about Play.
Play stretches the imagination,
and imagination can lead us to
whatever and wherever we want to go.

Throughout history, children have prepared for their adult lives by observing and modeling the activities of the adults around them. They imagine, pretend, and practice, and through these activities they gain understanding, stretch their capacities, and explore new concepts and ideas. In play children are released from the constraints imposed by a fear of failure and are left free to experiment. In short, they grow! Play is, in fact, a natural and powerful way to learn, and Village is all about play!

Each game of Village is set in a particular geographical location and time period. It starts with the bare bones of a story line: some challenge to be faced, a problem to be solved, or obstacles to overcome. From this loose outline and the fertile imaginations of the players a world emerges.

Village is played on two integrated levels. On a 1/24 scale the players, known as “Villagers,” design and build a complete village. This aspect of the game includes a “Peep,” a 3" avatar, with an independent personality, life story, and hopes and dreams.

Peeps want a home; Villagers design it for them. Peeps want a piece of land on which to place their fine homes; Villagers get that for them as well! Peeps like party hats, rocket ships, furniture, and social gatherings. (Some of them, like the unique character below, enjoy hammocks, too.) They become embroiled in scandal and drama! There are weddings, fundraisers, funerals, kidnappings, and robberies.

Fulfilling the demands of the Peeps and keeping up with their antics keeps Villagers pretty busy. Using their Peeps’ home design and land as collateral, and inspired by the needs and wants of the Peeps, Villagers head off to the Village bank to secure a loan and begin making purchases for their many new projects. And here begins the second aspect of the game.

Now the Villagers are running their own dynamic community. With money in hand, they go to the Trading Post to purchase all manner of goods for building their Peep homes, general crafting, and various independent enterprises. Villagers open businesses; apply for jobs at the bank, trading post, newspaper, or post office; run for government office; or perhaps attend the Village University. There are many ways for Villagers to earn income and stay busy!

Money and time management and goal setting become important: some Villagers accumulate wealth, others overdraw their bank accounts. Will the Villagers form a government? If they do, will that government be ethical and trustworthy or crooked and out for personal gain? Will laws be needed to keep the peace and ensure that all are treated fairly? The Villagers themselves will determine all of this and more. As in real life, there are model citizens, civil servants, bakers, and artists—as well as scoundrels, loafers, and ne'er-do-wells. It's all learning and all valuable! The possibilities are endless, and the game takes a new turn each time it is played.

From designing and building the scale model village for the Peeps, to managing personal projects and jobs, to attending to civic matters and the myriad interpersonal issues that always arise where groups of people converge, Village is filled with valuable, real life learning. Village is dynamic, unpredictable, and messy. It's challenging, rewarding, and fun! Village, like life, is filled with unforeseen circumstances and opportunities and, although children may play it over and over again, it is never the same and never loses its appeal. Village is filled with peer-based learning, natural consequences, and “Aha!” moments. In Village, young people step into leadership, confront real problems, and collaborate to find creative solutions. They take on the world, and they do an admirable job of it!

As a teacher, mentor, and school director of 40+ years, I can confidently say that Village is the most powerful teaching tool I have ever encountered, and it has completely transformed my understanding of learning and teaching. Most importantly, it has transformed and vastly expanded my view of what young people are capable of. Village has provided me a platform from which to explore and teach applied academics in a meaningful context. I have learned to trust the natural learning process and have grown comfortable with the chaos and mayhem that can come with letting creativity, self-expression, and learning by experience take reign, rather than imparting knowledge in a controlled learning environment. Moreover, Village has brought the spirit of play, creativity, and trust back into my own adult life. Village has become my passion, and it's my goal to share it with as many young people and mentors as I can!

Village takes roughly 25 days from start to finish. It has been played as the central component of an integrated, academic school curriculum, with homeschool groups, and as summer camps. It is best played with 20–26 (or so) children, aged 9–14 years (or so). However, Village, like life, can be adapted to a wide array of circumstances and needs.

For the past 10 years Village has been the heart of the Austin EcoSchool/Village Academy curriculum. With the recent closing of this wonderful school, Village is now loose; unfettered by a brick and mortar location, Village is free to come to you!

If you would like to register your child in an existing Village program or are interested in bringing Village to your child’s learning community, please contact us at

A Friday Village program is starting at AHB Community School on January 6, 2017, and is open to the homeschool community. Applications are accepted through mid-January. We are also in the process of launching a Summer Village, complete details of which will be available soon.

You can keep up with VillageinAustin by liking us on Facebook. Or read much more about us on the new Game of Village Austin website.

Cheryl Kruckeberg

My whirlwind tour of alternative schools in Austin

Michael Goldberg has been traveling the country, visiting alternative schools, and writing about them. He recently spent a week and a half in Austin and kindly agreed to share his impressions with us. You can read more about Michael’s alt ed adventures on his blog.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

From February 2 to February 11, 2015, I visited eight alternative schools in the Austin area. Seeing those schools was part of a larger project of exploring alternative education that I began in September.

Last school year I worked at a charter school in Chicago. While I learned a lot during that year, I was also disillusioned by much of what I saw—particularly by how my school’s near-total focus on raising standardized test scores distracted from students’ developmental needs and did little to foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I felt that there must be a better way to educate, so I started looking into alternative approaches.

I decided that I would travel the country on a mission to learn as much as possible about alternative education. I have a blog where I’ve written about some of my experiences.

I saw some very exciting things during my time in Austin:

  • At Clearview Sudbury School, I sat in on a Judicial Committee meeting. Judicial Committee is a democratic, participatory way of holding people accountable for behavior. Students or staff may fill out “complaint forms” against anyone whom they perceive to be disrespectful or breaking the rules, then J.C. (made up of students and staff) investigates the claims and votes on an appropriate response. The J.C. process strikes me as an excellent example of restorative justice.
  • At Whole Life Learning Center, I took part in “rhythm gym” class. We danced, juggled, and skipped to music in a circle. Later I learned about one class’s efforts to make a film about climate change and the environment for SXSW’s short film festival.
  • I learned about Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse’s noncoercive, play-based curriculum, as well as its focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature.
  • I helped smash acorns into acorn flour at Greenbriar School, then sat in on geography class, and finally joined the community for a potluck dinner.
  • I was immersed in the alternate reality that is Game of Village at Austin Ecoschool. Game of Village involves students taking on a specific role in an imagined community—the “village”—applying for a “bank loan,” building a model home, and putting on an end-of-the-year fair, among other things.
  • At the Inside Outside School I sang along during morning circle. Later, kids learned how to smoke meat over a fire during outdoor survival class.
  • I attended the Austin Alternative School Fair, where I met a lot of great people working in alternative education.
  • I learned about Skybridge Academy's democratic process for choosing classes. This school seems to be on the cutting edge of offering the intellectual freedom of a college-like experience to students in middle school and high school.
  • Lastly, I saw kids busy at independent work at Parkside Community School.

And there are still many more alternative schools in Austin that I unfortunately did not manage to visit.

One common thread of the schools I’ve visited, and of alt ed more broadly, is that students are not approached as being primarily minds, intellects, test-takers, or grade-earners, but rather as whole human beings whose experiences, desires, and intrinsic motivations are acknowledged and valued. That is not to say that the adults in traditional schools do not or cannot approach their students in the same holistic way, but I do believe that the policies and educational structures of many traditional schools make taking that approach more difficult to realize in practice.

So what makes Austin such fertile ground for alternative schools? I imagine it’s not unrelated to the goal of “keeping Austin weird.” Progressive parenting styles likely also contribute. Perhaps Austinites are just willing to try things differently.

I believe that alt ed in Austin, like alt ed throughout the country, has its reasons to celebrate and its challenges to face.

Alternative education seems to be growing—as more people realize that their values and approaches to parenting may not align with the practices of many traditional schools. We should celebrate the fact that people are waking up to this, that they’re feeling comfortable to question the assumptions many of us hold about education and to actively seek out and construct alternatives. And we should celebrate that many kids are experiencing formal education in holistic and liberating ways.

At the same time, alt ed is not without significant challenges. The most pressing and most important of these, I believe, both in Austin and in the country at large, is to make private alternative schools more accessible and inclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many families who do not have easy access to educational alternatives. Addressing this will not be an easy task, and it will not be confined only to factors within the immediate control of alternative schools. Nonetheless, alternative schools should do everything within their power to make the education they offer as accessible and inclusive as possible.

I don’t believe that there is a single approach that works for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities should each be empowered in educational decision-making. The alternative education movement—if there can be said to be such a thing—is largely about offering such freedom of choice. And although there is work to be done to ensure educational quality and genuine freedom of choice for all families, it’s exciting to see Austin offering so many options.

Michael Goldberg

Big learning in miniature

Every Thursday students at the Austin EcoSchool play the Game of Village, a complex, thoughtfully structured, open-ended game in which “children explore the world at large by creating a world in miniature.” Throughout the school year, they establish and run a society, take on individual jobs, and work together to form a government; together they solve problems major and minor— all on a scale of 1:24.

The geographic setting and time period change each school year. This year the game has taken place in ancient Egypt, under the tough scrutiny of Queen Cleopatra and her Roman spies. The Villagers—tiny figures called Peeps that the students create, complete with well-developed personalities, social and economic roles, and personal histories—spend their time building and maintaining homes, businesses, and public institutions. In the process, the students learn heaps of history, economics, physics, math, art, writing, and many practical life skills.

A Peep: three inches of personality and power.

When I visited the school one Thursday morning earlier this semester, it was buzzing with activity. Students were applying for positions as town crier and managers of the trading post, bank, and post office. Outgoing managers were checking references of applicants and preparing to train the new employees in systems they’d developed over the course of the previous semester. Architects and engineers were finalizing construction plans for a mummification temple. An accounting team was processing invoices, issuing paychecks, and auditing the bank.

I asked one young accountant, a twelve-year-old named Holland, what she liked about the game and her (Peep’s) role in it. “Well, I don’t know any other kids my age who know how to balance a checkbook,” she said. With a smile of satisfaction, she added, “I also know how to make a spreadsheet.”

Cheryl Kruckeberg, the school’s director, serves with other faculty members as one of the Village Commissioners who periodically “squeeze the game” by scheming behind the scenes to create new situations or problems to be addressed. For example, in the early spring they nudged the Villagers along in their construction projects with a letter from Cleopatra announcing an imminent visit. “That lit a fire under them!” she said. The students finished most of their buildings before the royal visit in hopes that the queen would look upon their village with favor.

Cheryl said that the Game of Village “fits in with everything else the school is about”: making learning natural, relevant, and lasting through a cross-disciplinary and theme-based curriculum that empowers students to realize their own personal goals. Through extended play, students learn real-life lessons—many of them about themselves. After spending a semester as a bank clerk, one student may gain the skills and confidence to apply for the bank manager position next time. Another student doing the same job may experience that all-too-common sensation of being trapped in a demanding job with little room for creativity. Both lessons are equally valuable. As Cheryl said, “I am not banker material. I am a craftsman.”

Village job postings. Must be a qualified Peep to apply.

This kind of self-understanding is something the school seeks to cultivate every day of the school week, and it can be seen in full blossom on Village days. Reflecting on speeches given by candidates and their nominators about their qualifications for office before the Peep government elections, Cheryl wrote on the Village Blog:

This was just one of the many times that I have wished that you parents could be a “fly on the wall.” To hear these amazing young people acknowledge themselves and each other for such qualities as honesty, compassion, diplomacy, visionary thinking, and all the rest was beyond description. I walked away inspired that these are the ones to whom our future belongs.

You and your family can experience the miniature world of the EcoSchool’s Village at its sixth annual
Mini Fair on Thursday, May 24, 5:00 to 7:30 pm. Students sell Mini Fair tickets, much like carnival tickets, up front, and you can use them to make your own Peep and take it on miniature rides or exchange them for snacks and various Peep goods. Tickets can be purchased with cash or traded for gently used books, pet supplies, or canned goods, which will be donated to local nonprofit organizations.