Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Why bother even trying to connect a perfectly fun game with “education”?
The short answer: children are always learning and play is learning. A bit longer answer: we as parents, guardians or teachers must offer EVERY chance to kids to learn and understand concepts in multiple ways. Also, ANY chance we have to use a tool that is fun should be brought into the learning experience. I witnessed the connection between education and Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) last summer, shortly after my DS (dear son) and I finished an awesome adventure. He showed me his own written out 1-page adventure! Cue: parental tear of joy. (Check out my post "Why You and Your Kids Should Play Dungeons & Dragons")
Why in a "classroom?"
I am a parent, a certified elementary and middle school math teacher and huge gamer – including D&D. While playing D&D for the best reason - fun - is primary, I have often thought about using D&D in a classroom or other learning environments. Educators use all sorts of games in the classroom now. But D&D is unique in that it allows for continuous scaffolding, collaborative and social engagement, and an ever-emergent thread of learning throughout the campaign/school year. Start at level 1 and level up as you learn! After all, in a role-playing game we can use any setting and any scenario so using the backdrop of D&D to learn seems to be an obvious engaging educational tool to put in your bag - the dotted line that connects education with role playing games (whether online or in on-the-ground) is short.
Or is it? When you play D&D in a group, players experience teamwork, bravery, compassion, generosity, negotiation, improvisation, gamer etiquette, strategy, critical thinking, problem solving, social skills and my favorite, cartography...possibly even during every session. Sadly, these are NOT measured on the standardized tests that teachers are made to use.
D&D in school?
What would lesson planning look like if you really wanted to use D&D? How could you use it for teaching Math, English, Social Studies, Science, Music, Art? (YES, music and art belong on this list!)
To really consider D&D and education, let’s have a common age/grade-level starting point. I suggest 3rd grade (about 8 or 9). D&D engages kids in role playing and exploration, but it also has combat (killing/death)...which just seems like a topic to avoid for super young children. I certainly would not want to be responsible to be the first adult introducing that topic. (Let’s leave that to the video game industry and TV.) The D&D box says the recommended age is 12, but I have experienced several truly amazing and fun games with 8 and 9 year old players. For this young age it is good to make some simple adjustments. First, change any humanoid villain to more of a monster/non-human – so the villain is not a human evil sorcerer, but instead a goblin queen. (Not that goblins all have to be bad either.) Second, simply encourage non-combat resolutions. Obviously, with older kids, we can make other developmental adjustments for their social and intellectual experiences.
How to use D&D as a backdrop for education:
Begin by dividing the class or group into teams in which each group will create and control one player character. The entire adventuring party (i.e. class) should have only 4 or 5 maximum player characters (teams). There should be one “game” (versus a separate game for each group) which then serves as the common focus and context for the ongoing collaborative learning.
The class controls the characters and actions as if they were in a “non-educational” setting; meaning that the D&D adventure is played! Here though, the game is used as an educational tool. During times when students need to demonstrate mastery of a lesson or concept, students need to answer questions correctly (and show work sometimes too)…before rolls are made. In this approach, the story is paused while the “work” is completed in order to advance the story. For example, the Storyteller/Teacher/DM poses a math problem, a written goal for the team/player’s next step, etc., like “Okay, you want to open the door? Complete this written problem.....”
Could you start an adventure at the beginning of a year and have the entire experience be cross-curricular? Yes, I believe so, but cross-curricular planning involves WAY too many meetings so let’s put a pin in that for now.
Below are only some of the many peer reviewed links to articles where a structured academic approach to education and Dungeons and Dragons is taken. (Obviously I am not the first person to make this connection 😊. ) Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post in which I will explore using D&D in the various subject areas.
Cicchino, M. m. (2015). Using Game-Based Learning to Foster Critical Thinking in Student Discourse. Interdisciplinary Journal Of Problem-Based Learning, 9(2), 57-74. doi:10.7771/1541-5015.1481
Echeverría, A., García-Campo, C., Nussbaum, M., Gil, F., Villalta, M., Améstica, M., & Echeverría, S. (2011). A framework for the design and integration of collaborative classroom games. Computers & Education, 571127-1136. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2010.12.010
Deterding, Sebastian, and Zagal José. Role-Playing Game Studies: a Transmedial Approach. Routledge, 2018.
Bowman, S. (2010). The functions of role-playing games: How participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Paul Lazrow (he / him)
Founder and Storyteller
player art from a Dungeons & Dragons gamer