Thanks to the Institute of Play’s MobileQuest CoLab, Pittsburgh educators took part in a two-week intensive professional development program for teachers to explore the learning potential of play, game design, and mobile technology.

Eighteen middle school teachers spent the second week of July playing games like Marco Polo and Ninja, a physical game where the goal is to “attack” other players, or “ninjas.” Teachers also played Minecraft and used game-design platforms like Gamestar Mechanic, which promotes science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts while teaching the principles of game design. Participants then worked to dissect and modify the games to make them more engaging for their students.

“When they start modifying games, they become designers and they start to understand how to intervene into systems so they can make richer experiences,” Nancy Nowacek, director for mobile programs at the Institute of Play, said to WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate.

During the second week of the program, teachers played these games with sixth and seventh grade students attending the Institute of Play’s MobileQuest CoLab summer design camp at Carnegie Mellon University.

Pittsburgh’s Youth Media blog explains:

The campers worked in small teams to create their own minute-long physical games using cones, hula-hoops, and other simple objects. The focus was on the game design process, from brainstorming the original idea to writing the rules of the game to modifying the design. Each game also utilized one iPad app, thus introducing technology into the game in an engaging but supplementary manner. As explained by Nancy Nowacek, Director of Mobile Programs at the Institute of Play, the camp was about teaching kids to “look at technology as a tool but not necessarily the focus in learning.”

In addition to playing and designing games, students at the camp worked together to design new games for an exhibition on the last day of camp.

This combination workshop/summer camp is based on the Institute of Play’s MobileQuest model, which has programs in both New York and Chicago. The New York-based nonprofit is behind the two Quest to Learn schools, in New York and Chicago. It has been championing the importance of game-based learning and training teachers to use games in their classrooms since it was founded in 2007. The organization is led by game design guru Katie Salen, who believes that games have the power to teach complex systems thinking—skills that today’s students are going to need in the workplaces of the future.

Nowacek explained that games are integral to learning because gaming is an “intellectual and emotional experience” for the player, who can become so engrossed that they will do just about anything to continue to move forward. Critical thinking, problem solving, detecting patterns, and finding innovative solutions to circumvent these patterns are all skills Nowacek said games can reinforce.

“Games are really great because they offer constant challenge towards their players so there is a kind of constant feedback that happens as people are playing games,” said Nowacek. “They are not only engaged with the system of the game but with one another.”

Brian Waniewski, managing director of Institute of Play, also led some of the sessions. He said every form of play is a form of risk, practice, or experimentation.

“One of the interesting things about games for us is that they unlock a state of being known as play, and in play all sorts of magical things happen,” he said. “People will take risks that they won’t otherwise take in real life. They will try again and again at a problem that they would have otherwise failed at. They will do really difficult things and have fun doing that. So that state of play known as being is really important when you’re trying to get kids and adults to learn.”

Soon-to-be eighth-grader Kaine Blakey Crumpton told WESA that he’d like to see these kinds of activities happen during the regular school year. “It teaches us new things like how to interact with other people trying to create things,” he said, “and it really gives us a chance to meet new people and see what they can do, and you can also figure out in yourself what you can do too.”

Educators said they came away from the experience with new ideas about how to use games and gaming structures for learning in their classrooms.

“I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it as like something they do gathering information,” said Christopher Foster, a teacher in the Elizabeth Forward School District. “I have always done maybe a review game, but not a strategy of them going out and finding the information on their own through a game, so that’s going to be something that I use, definitely.”