Play-making: Making play integral to Maker Education

“Play is children’s most serious work.” Edith Ackermann

In Loving Memory and Respect


The design team of EPIC Middle School dreamt big.  We evoked as many education buzzwords as we could think of and are still working hard to try to make them work together: game-based learning, the hero’s journey, making/”fablabing”, engineering, design, and personalized learning.  The design team all thought these went well together, and still do, but there are a lot of moving parts.  To show you what we had in our heads please allow me to take you on a short trip back to Oakland in the 60’s.

At Epic we do week long QUESTS, a.k.a. LARPS (live action role plays), at the end of 1st and 3rd trimesters.  We decided to call them QUESTS instead of LARPS to reflect our foundation in the hero’s journey. The first quest is called Oakland in the 60’s where students, a couple of weeks ago, made posters and chants that reflected the tools of the time. I wanted so bad to have a conversation with Edith about how we could make this experience for students and teachers (especially in the planning – its so intensive for teachers).

Oakland in the 60’s is a measuring stick for resistance movements against social injustice in the real world.  This year, we took students back to the 1968 elections between the Republican, Democrat, American Independent, and Peace and Freedom parties.  Each grade had a role:  6th grade were the non-committed class of voters who had to learn the issues to vote; 7th graders represented a political issue through the lens of one of the four political parties; the 8th graders represented the political parties and politicians in town hall debates in 6th and 7th grade classrooms.

In the Makerspace students came in to explore and re-enact different ways to make a protest.

Day 1 was all about the protest march.  Students broke into 2 committees: safe and responsible. The safety committee made sure to stay in formation throughout the whole march so that the protesters inside were safe from traffic while lead to the Tide Canal.  At the Tide Canal they lead investigations on the health of the water and did trash counts.  The responsible committee did some research on and re-write some chants regarding the issue they chose to focus on as a class.  One class focused on police brutality, another on Saving the Bay efforts, another on stopping the draft, but most wanted to protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Students marched from my classroom all the way to the Tide Canal with the protest posters they made and chants they re-wrote.  The class protesting against police brutality chanted all the way through a group of 5 police officers by Guadalajara restaurant: “No justice, no peace until the cops are off our streets.”  Some students debated whether they should continue the chant on the side and then joined in concluding that it the killings of unarmed men of color have to stop.

Day 2 was all about the sit-in.  Students had to decide tactically where in the Oakland in the 60’s EPIC world would be more impactful to have a sit-in.  Some decided the country club was a symbol of segregation since it segregated have’s from have-not’s. Others decided the police station headquarters was the best place to stage a sit in because they were against police brutality and the unfair profiling happening in the hallways.

These activities don’t normally have to do with making in the sense that they didn’t use paper cutters or laser cutters to make their posters.  However, as a Maker Educator I feel that there is constantly a step missing in my instruction to set the stage so to speak.  The Exploratorium’s online course Tinkering 101 goes over many ideas around facilitation, environment and activity design in order to ensure students are as engaged as possible.  They reminded me that some of those activities are going to require a lot more behind the scenes prep for me to be able to sit back and facilitate later and some activities will be more ready-to-tinker (if I may use a fashion term).  

My journey in this fellowship has to do with how to more effectively do that behind the scenes work as well as how to keep doing that around activities that lead students to develop skills they’ll need not to design things but to be co-creators and designers of every aspect of their world.  What do you think?  Is this too much of a stretch?  Is this not Maker Education anymore?

One Comment

Sam Phillips


There’s so much in this post that excites me. I am reminded of another great quote about play by Edith:

“Play is the art of world-making: making a world, inhabiting that world, and then being inhabited by it.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote in conjunction with my own program, which is after-school and less academically-oriented than your charter school. I see many of my students devise projects that allow them to explore new fandoms and express fan fictions (e.g. constructing a cosplay costume, coding a fan-made game in Twine, designing a shipping meme), which is something they don’t always get to do in school. Some of these projects have been very complex, connecting students to new maker tools and media formats and stretching their knowledge in a zillion directions. But most of the fandoms are connected to American contemporary “nerd culture” and reflect all of its problems (i.e. representations of women / POCs, consumerism, etc.) One of my challenges as a facilitator is to celebrate these fandoms, but also help my students become critical consumers at the same time.

One thing I admire about your work is the way that you’re situating structures like LARPing in an academic and locally meaningful context, so that your students can inhabit a world like “Oakland in the 1960s” the same way they do their favorite video games and comics. I have always been interested in game-based learning experiments and know first-hand how difficult it is to implement well. In 2011, I was teaching pre-algebra to middle-schoolers at a summer school in Cambridge, MA and, having just finished Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, tried to implement systems for badging and optional quests and a cumulative hi-score in lieu of more traditional assessment – and it was SO TOUGH for me to keep track of everyone’s progress and to keep the metaphor feeling meaningful to students. Your approach is much more complex and alive than what I was trying to do and I can’t imagine the amount of front-end development required to make it happen.

I would love to know in more detail how you develop these QUESTS and how you frame them to students. Do students help with the design of them or does it all come from teachers? I know that the ChicagoQuest schools used to hire game designers to co-develop their units with teachers. Do these QUESTS have win-states- or are they primarily focused on the role-playing aspect?



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