Gamification for Primary (K-3)


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Classroom gamification has been gaining traction at an increasing rate. Resources are ever more abundant and reasonably priced – or free of charge. When implemented according to best practices, with proper planning and execution, gamification makes a noticeable difference in students’ learning. It requires time and effort but costs very little. As a result, more and more teachers are embracing the practice. Apparently, this is enough of a trend to cause some consternation in certain circles, where high-quality educational games are produced at great expense and sold at an even greater profit.

It is understandable that the main focus in classroom gamification has been on secondary school. After all, market studies peg adolescents as the most avid gamers among school-age children; but this may have more to do with the fact older students have more cash on hand than younger ones. There is nothing to suggest that gamification will be less effective among younger students.

When gamifying an instructional unit for the youngest students, it is important to take their age into account, both developmentally and aesthetically.

Developmental Considerations for Primary-Grade Gamification

  • Shorter attention spanshort-attention-span
    • Keep Quests short – ref. Microlearning – activities in 5-minute blocks, immediate feedback, and allow the children to apply the XP they have earned at random intervals – this will help to avoid the expectation of reward and increase engagement.
  • Simpler vocabulary
    • It’s good to use unfamiliar vocabulary in context, especially when referring to a physical object like scoreboard or a frequent action like level up, but avoid introducing new words as part of an explanation.
  • Emergent to basic numeracy
    • Don’t expect Kinder students to know how many XP they still need to level up; this is a subtraction skill that is typically not required until second grade for developmental reasons.
  • Psycompetencechosocial stage of Competence; crisis of industry vs. inferiority; existential question “Can I make it in the world of people and things?”; development of self-confidence
    • Teamwork is a good way to ensure individual success experience. The important thing to learn about failure is that it can lead to improvement.
  • Limited experience translates into limited ability to make predictions or know what to expect.
    • Failures and setbacks are valuable opportunities for reflection, but young children may not have developed a strong understanding of causality. Pay extra attention to building a narrative with a direct bearing on the learning objective.

Aesthetic Considerations for Primary-Grade Gamification

  • Unfamiliar characters or situations may be frightening (villains or monsters may disturb rather than entertain), but the feeling of being afraid is familiar.
    • It’s OK to mention fear.
    • The focus should be on overcoming the fear, not on the fear itself.
  • Antagonists in narrative should be opponents rather than agents of evil.
  • Careful planning can allow teams to compete without anyone being made to lose.
    • Leveling to the max can be a way for all to win.
    • Unexpected discoveries along the way can allow each team to develop a sub-plot with a challenge and success.
    • Teacher can let one team “discover” an item or resource needed by another team, leading students to help each other succeed.
  • baby-dragonAnimal sidekicks/pets for characters are especially appealing and reassuring. They also offer added opportunities to apply points for upgrades.
  • Use avatars to build self-esteem by:
    • Creating avatars from a generic template. This reinforces the awareness of commonality while valuing diversity.
    • Allowing children to configure their own avatars. Whether the result actually resembles the child is less important than the action of creating a positive self-image, even as a cartoon figure.

With a little thoughtful modification, our youngest students can enjoy gamified instructional units too!