The Last Straw or the Last Resort? Using Games in Geographical Education

playinglaststraw

Students playing their own health and development game

Source: Author

With nine minutes to go until my Year 9 class arrived, I tried to get my Year 13 students to pack up prior to a plenary activity, but they did not want to finish the activity which they had been working on for well over an hour.

What was this activity?  A video?  A past paper question just prior to a report?  No – it was a board game – in fact it was the third one that they had made themselves.  They were all genuinely keen to learn!  So I let them play the game.

The Last Straw

Sometimes, it’s a struggle to think how I can bring the requirements of specifications to life.  In this case, I needed to convey the relationship between development and health in the UK, Brazil, and amongst Aboriginal Australians*.  Hmmm.  As it happens, a few years ago, I was lucky to have attended a Teachers’ Workshop at Leeds University, led by Myles Gould (@Myles_Gould_UoL), during which he introduced ‘The Last Straw – a board game on the social determinants of health’.  This can be purchased here: www.thelaststraw.ca

tls-board

The Last Straw board game

Source: http://www.thelaststraw.ca 

It’s not the most exciting title, I admit, but I have played it over a dozen times with different groups over the years, and it works – it always generates a discussion on the complexities of public health.  The game is set in Canada, and in almost all respects, the scenarios are like those encountered in the UK.  It has stood the test of time, and indeed it provides a good basis for discussions about how public health challenges have changed over the past decade (some for the better and some for the worse, but, wearing my ‘optimist’ hat, more for the better, I would argue!).

Playing The Last Straw

The game comes with detailed instructions, but here is an outline: The facilitator splits the students into up to four groups, and each one is issued with a ‘character card’.  They roll dice to determine the socio-economic status, gender and ethnic background of their character.  Once these have been set, they are issued ‘vitality chips’ to represent their level of health – for example, males get ten chips and females get nine.  This provides the first of many opportunities in the game to discuss why there are health inequalities – and indeed, whether some of them have changed since the game was made a decade ago, and how some may differ in different countries.  At this point it is best to mention that there will be sensitive scenarios in the game, some of which may apply to players in the room or their close acquaintances, and that mutual respect would be appreciated.

Then the players proceed around the board, encountering individual scenarios (e.g. rolling a dice to decide if they try drugs) or community scenarios (e.g. ‘the government provides funding for pre-school care’).  For every scenario, the player risks losing or gaining ‘vitality’ chips.  There are also three staging posts – adolescence, adulthood, and old age – when dice are again rolled to determine whether, for example, the educational level of the character changes.  Discussions are always encouraged, and sometimes, mini quizzes are set – such as when all present are rewarded with a vitality chip if they can collectively think of some ways to overcome a public health challenge – e.g. ways to stop smoking.

Taking it further

makinglaststraw

Students designing their own health and development game

Source: Author

This worked well – but I decided to build on the game and ask students to design their own.  They did this in small teams – one group made a game for the UK case study, another made one for Brazil, and the last group made one for Aboriginal Australians.  I made a smaller playing board but asked the students to retain the mixture of initial life chances, individual scenarios and community scenarios.  The students then took it in turn to play these games (I became a participant too, although I also corrected any factual inaccuracies and stimulated further discussion points during the games).  These were the games that the group were determined to play up to and beyond the end of the lesson.

Other games

Other games I have played in Geography are include:

Justifications for using games in teaching

I recommend the judicious use of games in teaching, and especially recommend the practice of students making their own games, for these reasons (among many others!):

  • Students engage with the topic in both the playing of, and the creation of, the games
  • Games encourage students to modify case study content, not just regurgitate it
  • They allow teachers to develop plenty of ‘primed’ discussions where the seed of a situation is planted**, rather than ‘blank slate’ discussions where students are asked to think on their feet

Take care!

Games should be used carefully, and here are some factors which should be considered:

  • The size of the class
  • The behaviour of the class
  • Time of day, day of the week, and time within the term: some of the more active ones can work well when children might be less receptive to more settled tasks, but others, such as the Last Straw, require more deliberation and discussion
  • The time available – for example, the activities covered above took longer than the time I would normally take to cover the bare bones of the content.  However, the listening, processing, and deliberative skills developed by playing The Last Straw and the three spin-off games justified the time devoted to them
  • The time taken by the teacher to prepare for each game (this is a great opportunity for spreading the workload around colleagues!)
  • Whether or not the players need to take notes, and if so, in which format, and when – during, or after the game?  In my experience, such reflections can work as a homework task
  • Follow-up activities – this could be a written reflection, or it could be a sample examination question – this is what I will be giving my group after playing The Last Straw

Finally, each of these games requires contextualisation and on-the-spot willingness on behalf of the teacher to be flexible.  It is also worth mentioning that the seriousness of the subject matter of each game should be considered – they represent real life scenarios.  I still wince when I remember playing a board game created by a fellow PGCE Geography student 18 years ago – he called his game ‘Bangladesh bingo’, and the first player who successfully ticked off the impacts of a flooding event, such as ‘a cholera outbreak kills thousands’, had to stand up and celebrate by shouting out ‘floodtastic!’.

Final thoughts…

Has anyone come across a climate change – or ‘sustainable futures’ board game of the same level of complexity as The Last Straw?  I was thinking that one day, I could make a board game!

David

* For the Edexcel A Level ‘Health, Human Rights and Intervention’ module.

** Such as ‘You lost one vitality chip for contracting an STD, but two for the anxiety resulting from being bullied – is this a fair representation of the relative seriousness of these two events, and indeed what is your opinion of the importance of physical versus mental challenges to health?’

Author: alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

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