Academic journal article Science Scope

Let's Play That Again! Engaging Students in Ecology by Using Instructional Games

Academic journal article Science Scope

Let's Play That Again! Engaging Students in Ecology by Using Instructional Games

Article excerpt

Although we might think of play as something that students do when they are not learning, this is far from the reality. When children play they learn, and they do this without the assistance of lesson plans or purposeful teaching by adults (Gehlbach 1986). Teachers can harness the power of play as an instructional strategy in their classrooms. Instructional play is a way to provide an overarching, purposeful structure to games in order to create a specific outcome (Gehlbach 1986).

Games are a good fit in the Engage portion of the 5E learning cycle (Trowbridge, Bybee, and Powell 2000). An instructional game can serve to focus students' attention, awaken their interest, help them connect to their prior knowledge, stimulate their thinking, and encourage them to question. A well-placed game can also act as a discrepant event to elicit student misconceptions about a concept and begin the process of conceptual change. Similar to a discrepant event, a learning game can function to get the attention of students, provoke thought, cause students to wonder why the game happened as it did, elicit misconceptions, and initiate student questions and inquiry. For example, after playing the mating game, a student may ask, "Why didn't everyone find a mate?" This question could then lead to a discussion on competition between organisms.

This article describes two ecological games, the Salmon Game and the Mating/Animal Communication Game, which can be used in an outdoor education context, as well as in a classroom. The games are great ways to introduce ecological concepts in your middle school science classroom. It is important for students to understand ecological processes. When students are taught ecology through traditional lecture types of instruction, they are apt to think that science is a collection of discrete facts. Ecology is all about connections and interactions at multiple levels, and these two ecological games can be a great introduction to these concepts.


You can use both of these games to elicit student misconceptions. Asking some leading questions about concepts represented in the games can show you where students are with these topics. If you aren't going to use the games themselves to do this, determine students' existing knowledge by asking questions to the class, having students fill out an entrance slip, engaging the class in a discussion, or having students draw up a quick graphic organizer.

The Salmon Game

The Salmon Game addresses concepts of life cycles, ecology, and human impact, as well as several Next Generation Science Standards (see sidebar, p. 8). The game represents a part of the life cycle of anadromous salmon species in which the salmon return from the ocean to freshwater streams in order to spawn. During the game, students pretend to be spawning salmon and act out several ecological concepts involved with the biological process of spawning. The game can be used to introduce life cycles, food webs, life strategies, population ecology, and humans as part of the biosphere.

Setup and gameplay

Along with the following directions, use Figure 1, Salmon Game Setup, for clarification. You will need an approximately 3 m x 4.5 m (10 ft. x 15 ft.) area, either inside or outside, to play the Salmon Game. This space is enough for a typical class of 30 students. If you want to play the game with more students at once, such as with an entire grade, it would be better to play the game in a gymnasium or larger outdoor area. You might also want to increase the actual game space to around 4 m x 6 m (13 ft. x 19 ft.). Separate this area into three sections, one after another like the rungs of a ladder (see Figure 1). Each of these sections represents a barrier to the salmon, and students will have to make it through all the barriers to survive.

Safety note: Before playing the game, make sure to remind your students to play safely and not get too rough with each other. …

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