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Julie McNamara - Young Inventor’s Challenge Plays a Role in the 4 C’s of Education

Today’s students should be learning more than just the basics–reading, writing, and arithmetic. Twenty-first century learning integrates the 4 Cs of education—Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication. As a teacher, one way I have found to teach these skills in my classroom is through toy and game design.

What child doesn’t love to play games?

This interest of game play can easily be applied to any classroom curriculum and will encompass a variety of Common Core Standards in math, reading, writing, and speaking and listening. As a gifted and talented pull-out teacher, I incorporate game design into a unit on inventions. My unit, which typically spans from the start of the school year until mid-November, includes an authentic competition in which students enter their toy or game inventions into a Young Inventor Challenge (YIC) at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair.

Research suggests that gifted children are highly motivated by competition and it encourages them to perform to their highest ability. Through competition, students are required to follow the rules, meet deadlines, and interact with the public, all necessary life skills.

For the past seven years, I have had a group of students enter their projects in the YIC. Over the years, I have had winners in multiple categories, including People’s Choice, Junior 1st and 2nd Place, Best Commercial/Pitch Video, Most Marketable, and in 2016 the Grand Prize. Brynna Siewers and Olivia Wasilewski, two 4th graders, invented a unique game called Ship of Treasures. As part of their prize package, they were given the opportunity to work with Pressman Toys and Target to produce and market their game. It can now be purchased at Target stores across the nation. In addition, they were awarded the prize of Young Inventor of the Year at the TAGIE awards in November of 2017. I was shocked and honored when they presented me with their prize trophy for being their teacher and guide through the process.

Another student of mine, Patrick Ready, invented a game called Dino Dig and won Most Marketable Game in the junior category at the 2017 YIC. He is also currently in talks with Pressman and Target to produce his game.

Any teacher at any grade level can easily implement game design in the classroom. In order to create an original game, I have students follow the steps of the Engineering Design Process: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve.

In the Ask stage, students learn about the contest rules and requirements and ask what will need to be done to compete. They read non-fiction texts on other game inventors, play a variety of different games (It is important for students to see games that are 3 dimensional rather than a flat board and the object of the game is not just to get from start to finish), and are asked questions on individual likes and dislikes. In the Imagine stage, students brainstorm a list of game ideas. Students are allowed to work individually or with one partner. Each person must submit 10 or more game ideas. Choices are then narrowed down to the top three and pros and cons are listed for each. I pick my favorite and discuss my choice with the students, but they ultimately make the final decision. During this time, students also pitch their chosen idea to a friend of mine named Nick Metzler. He was a two time winner of the Young Inventor Challenge and worked with PlaSmart to market his winning game, Squashed. Now working for Spin Master, Nick Skypes with my students to answer questions and provide feedback. Students then move in into the Plan stage and are required to make a rough sketch of their game and list materials needed. Many years ago I wrote to Hasbro (who at that time sponsored the Young Inventor Challenge) and asked if they had game materials to donate. I was lucky enough to receive a nice supply of game pawns, spinners, and counters. I also advise students to take parts from old games, make materials from cardboard or household items, or buy cheap materials from local dollar stores. Once materials are gathered, they move into the Create stage. At this point in time, students follow out their plan for design and build a working model of their toy or game. Furthermore, authentic writing pieces such as a product description and game directions are assigned and graded according to a rubric. This year, students studied game commercials and catch phrases to develop storyboards to create their own commercials. Once game prototypes are ready, we hold a mock Young Inventor Challenge at the school. Third and fourth grade classes are all invited to attend and playtest the games, providing positive comments and constructive criticism for the game designers to use in the next stage of the process–Improve. Finally, before heading to the Young Inventor Challenge, students work to improve their games by repeating the first steps in the process and creating a final product. Class time is also spent going over good presentation skills and preparing to speak to the judges.

While the inventing process can be challenging and not everyone is a winner, it is overwhelming rewarding for students to see their original ideas developed into working games. I strive to help my students develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. Part of this is teaching them not to shy away from challenges; they are taught to see these difficult situations as an opportunity for growth. They understand that through mistake, the brain will learn and thus grow. I remember working with my students to create Ship of Treasures. The final product is very different from the original idea. It went from an outdoor pirate game piggybacked on the concept of a scavenger hunt to a 3-D board game with trapdoors to reveal hidden treasure. When something went wrong and didn’t work as planned, I assisted them in working back through the steps of the Engineering Design process. Even after winning the Young Inventor Challenge, the girls continued to work with a team from Pressman to make additions and changes further improve the game before it hit store shelves.

(Julie with Olivia and Brynna, inventors of Ship of Treasures)

Why have my students been so successful? I believe it’s because they have been given the opportunity to learn by doing. They cannot wait to begin the invention unit and design their own games; students find this type of activity engaging. They become passionate about their project and the learning that goes along with it.

Moreover, the majority of the work for the project is done at school and not at home. Yes, I want the project to be the students’ own work and parents do have a tendency to help when it’s done at home. But most importantly, when the project is completed in school, students don’t feel the burden of just getting the assignment done. With that stress removed, they look forward to coming into the classroom each day and progressing through steps in the design process. I find my students are motivated to learn when the learning is meaningful.

In October of 2017, I walked into a Target store and saw Ship of Treasures on the store shelf; I purchased my students’ game! I’ve talked about this experience being rewarding for the students, but it’s also rewarding for me as a teacher to see my students succeed. It makes all those class periods of brainstorming ideas, the multiple trials and failures, and the chaos of meeting deadlines all worth it in the end.

Resources I use to supplement my invention unit:

Invent by Interact

Toy Company by Interact

Inventions, Inventors & You by Diane Draze – Prufrock Press Inc

(Julie and her family)

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