Written by Phil Chase, designer of Team Digger
Recently, the blog Behind the Scenes with Team Digger! was published explaining the process that went into creating the newest SimplyFun game, Team Digger. One of the major points shared was that Team Digger is a game that shows kids how they can achieve something satisfying by working together.
As the designer of Team Digger and a lifelong educator, it’s this point that I want to spotlight. Now, it’s my turn to explain a little more about the educational basis for the design, and what some of the research says about how kids learn. Don’t worry, though! I won’t get too technical. After all, I’m a teacher myself and I know how to keep things fun!
While it’s true that Team Digger is getting a lot of attention for its STEM theme because players learn early programming and step-logic skills as Digger and his friends are moved around the dog park, there’s another, deeper educational principle that I carefully aligned Team Digger to when I showed SimplyFun my concept: social-emotional learning (SEL).
The SEL model shows the way that students can grow emotionally and socially in addition to learning content knowledge in schools, which are skills they need to not only be successful in school but also as adults navigating a complex and often challenging world. A link to the full model is at the end of this post to learn more, but for now, I’ll define the five core social-emotional learning skills and ways in which I believe Team Digger, and games like it, can develop in kids.
- Self-Awareness: A child’s ability to understand what they’re feeling and thinking, as well as what they value or prioritize, and how this affects how they see—and react to—their quickly-developing world.
- Self-Management: A child’s ability to manage reactions, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors at different times and under various conditions, including times of stress, in order to achieve a goal or enjoy a particular outcome.
- Responsible Decision-Making: A child’s ability to make thoughtful and reasonable choices that result in positive behavior or social interactions in a variety of settings or situations.
- Social Awareness: A child’s ability to read, gauge, and understand the perspectives of others, resulting in empathy, compassion, or caring.
- Relationship Skills: A child’s ability to develop and maintain healthy and positive connections with others by communicating effectively, negotiating with others for shared benefit, working in groups, and solving problems as a team.
Just reading my simplified definitions might already give you a sense of where I’m heading: cooperative play is a vital part of cooperative learning, which is one of the most effective ways that kids can learn and practice these social-emotional learning skills. Cooperative learning can (and should) happen in the classroom, but it can also happen at home, and cooperative play is a powerful strategy for getting kids to develop and practice these skills.
In my classroom, I often ask my middle school learners to work together—but with a little more intentional design behind it. I make sure they understand that they don’t just need to get the task or project done; they need to depend on each other to get it done. I design lessons where no one person could complete the task alone and incorporate situations where they need to teach each other what they learned so that the group gets smarter.
Looking back, I recognized that there must be more going on within their groups than even I could have foreseen. To meet the goals I set, my students needed to find ways to self-regulate their own behavior, visualize the perspectives of the other group members, use patience, turn-taking, and politeness in their interactions, and contribute meaningfully to problem-solving and task completion.
Develop These Skills in Team Digger
So how exactly do kids develop these types of SEL skills through the cooperative style of play in Team Digger? Here are some examples:
- In Team Digger, players activate and practice their relationship skills to communicate about what directions they’d like to move their individual dog in order to find the four bones needed to win. To do that, they’ll have to explain their intentions, discuss limitations and opportunities, and agree to adhere to a shared plan—even though they control individual dogs.
- As they play, though, they may experience something not going to plan. Their individual dog may dig up something that’s not a bone—a chew toy, for example, or an old sock. Hey, it’s a dog park, remember? There’s no telling what you might find besides bones. But if their dog digs up something that doesn’t help win the game, something more important comes into play at that time. The child has to self-manage their disappointment and find the motivation to try again on their next turn. After all, the other players are still depending on them!
- Other kids playing the game know they can’t win unless everyone tries their best and continues to move their dogs—even if they don’t find the bones right away. To do that, they have to “step outside themselves” and activate their social awareness, giving advice to players as they plan their moves, encouraging them to try again, and joining them in celebrating the satisfaction of finding one of the bones. At the same time, they have to be self-aware and figure out how their own decisions can positively affect the outcome of the game.
- On top of all of that, each player’s responsible decision-making ability is always “on” during gameplay. Not only are their minds making strategic decisions based on the changing positions of the dogs, the cards drawn, and the scorecard of bones and objects found, but they are constantly making higher-level decisions as well: how they can continue to cooperate positively with the group, what they will do to assist with achieving the overall goal, and even what to do after the game ends.
According to most definitions, cooperative learning happens most effectively when kids have positive interdependence balanced with individual accountability, and when they can enjoy real-time, face-to-face interactions with other kids that build meaning and lead to the achievement of group goals. Cooperative play with games such as Team Digger can provide a fun avenue toward cooperative learning strategies both in and out of the classroom. As you can see, developing SEL skills are an integral part of the success of cooperative play and thus of cooperative learning, which I’m sure you’ll agree is something kids can benefit from more of.
As a game designer, I’m thrilled to see Team Digger help kids learn to work together and have fun at the same time. As an educator, I’d like to see more games support social-emotional learning skills and cooperative learning!
Links For More Information
- For the SEL model, see the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) website at casel.org.
- For the benefits of cooperative play, visit the Genius of Play website at geniusofplay.org.
- For a great explanation of the power of cooperative learning, visit the Social Emotional Workshop website at socialemotionalworkshop.com.
About the Author
Phil Chase is a lifelong educator, having served as a middle-school languages and ESL teacher, team and office leader in the Michigan Department of Education, and most recently as an educational consultant. As a board game aficionado, he is also the designer of several other board games, including Digger’s Garden Match by SimplyFun.