Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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Escape to Win: Why Classroom Escape Games Are a Breakout Trend

Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and you did, when you signed your contract): Impart a specific TEKS objective to your students. It’s up to you how you complete your mission—but you only have 50 minutes in which to do it.

Is a traditional worksheet up to the task?

Perhaps not.

It might be time to try a growing trend in game-based learning (GBL): the classroom escape game. These beat-the-clock classroom activities—whether based on an escape game kit from an educational product company or a DIY digital effort created with Google Sites and Forms—are winning over educators with their ability to combine content review with the four C’s (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication).

“Digital escape games can be incorporated in any and all content and grade levels,” says Jennifer Murnan, a fifth grade teacher and ATPE member in Mesquite ISD. Murnan has presented sessions on creating DIY digital escape games at several professional conferences. “You just need to understand your TEKS inside and out and know how to present that information to your students. The clues can be as simple or as complex as you want based on the needs and abilities of your students.

“Digital escapes are great for encouraging the four C’s as students work together toward a common goal.”

The Origins of Game-Based Learning

Although academics have only recently started calling the gamification of learning “GBL,” the earliest evidence of human game play dates back to 3500 B.C. in Egypt. Ancient burial frescoes included a game called “Senet” that archaeologists believe was designed to teach theological perspectives on the afterlife. The concept of learning through game play is “deeply embedded into our cultural history as a civilization,” according to researchers at Coventry University and the University of Southampton in the U.K.

Classroom escape games are one of the latest examples of GBL and an educational offshoot of the “escape room” concept that originated in Kyoto, Japan, in 2007, and are now found across the globe. In these popular attractions, which often feature remarkable production values such as elaborate sets, actors, interactive elements, and sound effects, players work together in teams to solve puzzles and “escape” from a locked room in a defined period of time.

Such a room inspired the founders of Breakout EDU, a leading producer of physical classroom escape game kits and a growing library of digital escape games. In March 2015, founder James Sanders, a former middle school teacher and Presidential Innovation Fellow during the Obama administration, visited an escape room with a group of high school students. He had participated in an escape room before, but this was the first time he had done so with students. What he saw inspired him: The students collaboratively interacted and constructively offered one another feedback. He thought, “How can this be translated to the classroom?”

Sanders began brainstorming with his friend Mark Hammons, then a tech coordinator for the Fresno County Office of Education in California. They developed a prototype of what is now the Breakout EDU game kit and started beta testing it with educators.

“As we prototyped the concept, we played some rudimentary games and had one person out of thousands say, ‘Yeah, this isn’t going to work at all,’” Hammons says.

Having received the positive feedback, Sanders and Hammons brought in fellow ed tech innovator Adam Bellow and began developing the Breakout EDU kits—a small box with a series of locks. The box can be used with curriculum-aligned games available on the Breakout EDU website.

“We wanted our kits to be kind of like a Nintendo console,” Hammons says. “All of the games should be plug and play on the console. That way, if you’re a teacher in South Africa, you can play the same game as a teacher in Minnesota or a teacher in Texas.”

Each Breakout EDU game includes a reflection activity, so students focus not only on the academic content involved in the game but also social and emotional learning (SEL).

“As teachers, we’ve all been guilty of handing out worksheets and kids being bored and not being given a safe environment in which to fail,” Hammons says. “Our primary focus was on the four C’s—those are the real career-ready skills that we want to harness, but we wanted to do it in a fun and engaging way that didn’t feel forced. As we create games, we’re always looking at ways not to have linear paths to solve something, but multiple ways to solve something. That way it gives kids the opportunity to have a really strong dialogue about problem solving.”

What Research Says

Offering multiple student-driven paths to completion is a key driver of student engagement through classroom escape games, according to academic research. Another is the additional narrative layer.

In “Exploring Gamification Techniques for Classroom Management,” a paper presented in 2013 at the Games+Learning+Society 9.0 conference, Scott Nicholson of the Syracuse University School of Information Studies describes a traditional rewards-based gamification experience that initially engaged all students in the course but soon lost its novelty. A leaderboard component began to demotivate everyone who wasn’t winning. Nicholson and his students decided to switch gears six weeks into the course and implement a student-suggested game in which the students took on the role of lab rats attempting to escape a mad scientist’s maze. The added narrative element created motivation for the students, though Nicholson noted “using a narrative that doesn’t support the concept of the class and feels ‘tacked on’ will lose its charm quickly and can get in the way of learning objectives.”

“The concept of meaningful gamification is that the primary use of game layers is not to provide external rewards, but rather to help participants find a deeper connection to the underlying topic,” Nicholson writes.

How to Escape in Your Classroom

Educators seeking to try classroom escape games have two options: the commercial, premade route (à la Breakout EDU), or the DIY approach Murnan uses in her classroom.

Most Breakout EDU kits are purchased by school systems, Hammons says, though individual teachers can also invest in the kits, which cost $150 each and include a year’s subscription to Breakout EDU’s online database of games. Teachers can also create their own games using Breakout EDU kits, which include physical locks, invisible ink pens, and more.

What’s really taking off, according to Hammons, are the digital escape games complementing Breakout EDU kits. A teacher might have only one physical kit but want the rest of the class to be able to participate. In addition, students can create their own digital games and submit them to their teacher for review.

Educators like Murnan have been inspired by Breakout EDU’s digital sandbox and “build your own” videos that explain how to hide clues in Google Drawings and create locked Google forms. Murnan’s instructional technology facilitator introduced her to paper-based escape games.

“I am a big fan of not spending money, so the idea of being able to implement something fun and exciting for my students without having to purchase or manage lock boxes intrigued me,” Murnan says. “But as frugal as I am, I also don’t like to print a bunch of different things and keep track of it all. So, I decided I could do the same thing completely online.”

Murnan likes to use her escape games as review activities and has created two digital escapes—one for physical properties and one for Earth and space science. She is also working on a life science game.

“Creating your own digital escape game takes a lot of planning upfront and quite a bit of time to create, but once you’re finished, you have an awesome gaming experience that your students will love,” she says. 


This content was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of ATPE News.