By Cindy Whiston, EDD
Escape rooms have gained popularity recently among thrill-seeking adults who want a fast-paced critical thinking challenge. As escape rooms begin to pop up around the country, teachers are starting to take notice of this new method to engage their students in the classroom. Having students solve puzzles and find hidden clues excites students, but these engaging activities can be costly for teachers.
Many escape room plans can be purchased by teachers but don’t teachers already spend too much of their own money on their classrooms? Most schools are not going to purchase these items within their limited budgets either, so what are teachers to do? Be creative!!
Creating an escape room for the classroom can be done easily and inexpensively. Teachers already have everything they need, it is just a matter of finding the time to put it all together. Gathering topic ideas and learning some tips and tricks makes creating engaging and economical escape rooms for the classroom possible.
An escape room can be called many things including escape game, breakout room, breakout game, etc. For this article the term “escape room” will be used. An escape room for adults is a “game where people are locked into a room and have to find a way to escape by finding clues in it, and solving puzzles, or a special room where this is done” (Cambridge Dictionary). In the classroom, an escape room can be similar to an escape room for adults or it can be completed in a modified fashion. Teachers have the flexibility of using any materials they have, creating escape rooms with or without locks, or simply creating escape rooms using paper and pencils. Students have to solve clues or puzzles to find the end result which can be whatever the teacher desires. The major difference between an adult escape room and student escape rooms is, obviously, students should never be locked in rooms and there is learning occurring for the students.
First and foremost, it’s fun! When students are having fun and are engaged in any activity, they are learning without realizing it and enjoying their time at school. Teachers have to continually find ways to engage this generation of students who are constantly surrounded by a fast-paced environment with their ever-shrinking attention spans. During escape rooms, students are engaged with material in a creative way that gets them excited about the concepts they are learning and real-life problem solving. Escape rooms can provide the fast-paced, high-intensity environment that many students are constantly seeking. As students move through the clues and puzzles they are redirecting their focus and attention frequently and staying involved as they only have to provide short bursts of attention for each new puzzle or clue.
Students are also able to strengthen and improve their 21st-century skills when working through an escape room. Students are using creative and critical thinking skills to solve puzzles, think differently about clues, and apply their knowledge in a new setting. The skills of collaboration and communication are practiced as students work together in groups to ‘escape’ as they have to depend on each other and make sure they are actively listening to their group members. These higher order skills can be hard to implement in a classroom setting so the escape room activity is an effective strategy for teachers to use to challenge all of their students.
Making the escape room authentic for students by creating real-life situations will help them become even more involved. When students can easily see how what they are learning can impact their everyday lives they are more likely to find value in it and invest themselves fully in the experience. Teachers can be as creative as they want with the stories they construct as the background for their escape room. Using pop culture or real-life personalities entices students to solve the mystery and fully engage in the situation. Whatever plot the teacher constructs, the escape room activity is very worthwhile in the classroom.
Yes, there are ready-made escape room plans that can be purchased but teachers should be able to create escape rooms using creativity and what they already have to cut down on cost. As teachers begin to think of ideas for their first escape room it is easy to become overwhelmed of the possibilities. The best way to begin is to start simply. The first time a teacher creates an escape room they can just use what they already have, or activities they already use, and tweak them to create a puzzle or exciting environment. For example, a teacher can take a worksheet with several math word problems on it and cut those up so they are individual puzzles. The teacher can hide those puzzles around the room and then create word clues or riddles to guide students throughout the room so they find the puzzles and have to solve them before time runs out. This is a very simple way to create an escape room that will still engage students but not cost the teacher any money and does not take much time or thought to put together.
As teachers get more courageous and want to start creating more complex escape rooms they should use what they already have available in their rooms. For example:
Inexpensive locks can be purchased for about a dollar or many schools already have them for lockers and these can be used in escape rooms to lock a cabinet or box that holds a clue or the end prize.
• Teachers can use lockboxes that are usually available at every school, or use locking cabinets they already have in their rooms.
• Hiding clues around the room is easy and finding unique ways to guide students to those clues can be fun.
• Cutting up a copy of a map or picture and hiding pieces around the room is an easy way for students to work together to find the pieces and solve the puzzle.
• Purchasing inexpensive invisible pens with UV lights can create a detective-like atmosphere to the room.
• Putting clues in blown-up balloons and hiding those around the room makes a fun way for students to pop the balloons to find the correct clue.
• Anything else the teacher has in the room can be used with a little imagination.
Teachers are creative as they have to find ways to work with few supplies every day. Using that creativity to plan an escape room is just another way to generate an engaging activity that does not have to cost a lot of money.
Teachers first need to identify the topic and standards they plan to meet with the escape room and then they need to determine the end result. What will students find at the end of the room or what is the solution to the larger problem that has been created for them? Then teachers should work backward to plan the other clues that will lead students to the end result. For example, if teachers are using a lock at the end, then they need to plan the clues so students find the numbers to open the lock during the process. Or, if teachers place puzzle pieces around the room they will need to create clues to guide their students to find them. Finally teachers should create an opening dialogue to set the scene for the students. What will the teacher tell them beforehand? How will the students know where to begin?
This outline of the escape room is almost complete with a few decisions that should be made by the teacher ahead of time. Teachers should decide if they are timing their students or making the escape room a competition between students. This can be motivating for some students but would be inappropriate for other students so the teacher needs to use their knowledge of their students to make those decisions. Teachers should also determine if they are going to have students work in smaller groups or as a larger class. Groups of 10 or less seem to work best in the setting but it is up to the teacher’s discretion. Other decisions that need to be made include:
• Will the teacher give clues to the students if they get stuck?
• If clues are given, will that add time to the students’ final time?
• How much time will be allotted for the entire escape room?
• Will the escape room occur in the regular classroom or in a different setting?
• How will the teacher assess student participation in the escape room?
When teachers try out their first escape room there will be minor errors and mishaps. As teachers do every day, they will reflect on the activity and then revise their plans to avoid those issues the next time the escape room is used. Keeping an open mind, being flexible, and focusing on the positives that come from engaging students with an escape room will help teachers as they start this exciting process.
So what now?
Get started! Teachers can do it they just need to use their imaginations and start simple!
Cindy Whiston, Ed.D, presented Using Engaging and Economical Escape Rooms in the Classroom at the Quincy, Ill., Conference. She is the Education Department chair, director of teacher education, and assistant professor of education at Culver-Stockton College