Going on Safari: Games Based Learning in Action

Dawn Hallybone - Senior teacher/ICT Co-ordinator at Oakdale Junior School, London Borough of Redbridge.

‘The most powerful learning tool ever created’ is how Lord Puttnam described the video game. The use of this technology within the classroom has been gaining momentum in the UK over the last couple of years and I have been using Nintendo DS consoles within the classroom to both engage and enhance the curriculum for the last two and a half years. Over the last year, I have been part of a contextual hub for gaming in the local borough called the Redbridge Games Network. The initial brief (to look at using the Wii console to improve writing within schools) allowed teachers across the borough to evaluate a series of games to assess their potential use within the classroom to encourage and improve writing.

We were clear that if the game did not provide an adequate springboard for writing, it would be rejected; one example was the Wall-E game. The film provides many opportunities within the classroom to discuss environmental issues and we thought the game did not add to this experience. Games we did feel would provide the necessary stimulus for writing include Wii Sports, Mario and Sonic at the Olympics, Mario Kart, Wild Earth African Safari and Another Code: R. Following our identification of the games, we moved towards thinking explicitly how they would help writing.

I decided to select the Wild Earth African Safari game for use during the summer term with a Year 6 class.  Tim Rylands and Peter Richardson have both used this game to great effect and I researched carefully its use with other classes and year groups. The learning rationale for using the game was simple; I wanted to immerse the children within a ‘safari’ to give them a stimulus for their writing and to extend their knowledge on habitats and I was drawn to this choice in part by the pupils. We had previously been working on the World Cup and one of the tasks was to choose five activities they would do on holiday; one of the top choices for the children was to go on Safari. 

To give them a contextual awareness, I first asked the pupils to research where exactly we could go on safari by locating areas using Google Earth. I then explained that the place chosen for their next block of writing was Serengeti National Park and they were asked to find out more information about the park and think about why parks of this nature were necessary as the form of a debate.  This gave all the children a good basic knowledge to begin with not only of the park but also allowed them to grasp the very difficult concept about the importance of protecting species within a natural environment as far as possible.

The next part of the learning process was to fly to Tanzania and visit the Serengeti using Google Earth. Before we zoomed in to explore the environment, we discussed what kinds of habitat we might see and what animals we might find, making clear cross curricular links as I firmly believe this is an important part of the learning process.

We then zoomed in and had a look around – with the children in control as they always see things that I miss. Once we had a good ‘feel’ for the environment we then watched a short video from YouTube which showed a range of still images of both the animals and the habitats found in the Serengeti. While the children watched the clip, I asked them to name their favourite animal and one adjective to describe that animal. We then went round the class with the children calling out their animal and adjective, while they did this I typed all the words quickly into Wordle – a tool that we have used a lot in class.

It’s great to see the words that stand out and leads to a great discussion on why certain words stand out – also enables children to look at the smaller words, all the time extending and sharing the vocabulary in the classroom. Using the images from the video and the Wordle, the writing task was then to create the voiceover for the video that the children then presented in the ‘style’ of David Attenborough.

Equipped with contextual knowledge, we were then ready to go on safari! Using the Interactive Whiteboard with the Wii, we played the game by moving through the park taking a series of photographs which form part of the mission, while at the same time being aware of their impact on the environment and finding out facts about the creatures as the move through.

Going on Safari

I had chosen the co-operative mode to play this game with one child being the photographer and the other ‘driving’ and navigating their way round.  Throughout the game the children are reminded about the primary and the secondary objectives and there is also an environmental impact meter they need to be aware of. This bar decreases the more of a negative impact the players have on the environment they are moving through (which can occur by disturbing other animals or causing too much noise).  At timed intervals the player’s roles switch throughout the game and I had also told the class that once those ‘on’ safari had taken five pictures they would also swap.

To maximise the learning based on the game, the class was arranged into five groups; three groups were ‘on’ safari, one group making notes on what they saw using adjectives and adverbs to describe what they saw, while the last group made notes on facts about the environment or animals that was relayed by the game.

The pairs of children worked together well – they had to co-operate, they also had to take their time as they soon realised that the controllers and the movement within the game were very sensitive. The rest of the class joined in with enthusiasm calling out – ‘the baby elephant is over there!’ while the note taking groups frantically scribbled.  The major disturbance came when we were all charged by an ostrich! The entire class – myself included – we really were ‘on safari’ and we had disturbed the environment.  Over the next hour, we spent time photographing the elephants and finding out more about them, their habitat and their social interaction it was a great hour with all the children engaged.

After the hour ‘on’ safari the groups went back to their table and they carried on talking about the game and sharing what they had found out – this was then shared with the whole class. A class fact file was assembled on elephants and those that had been in control talked about how they had felt, while those observing gave words to describe the scenery. The writing tasks that followed were an information page on elephants and a diary entry of our first day on Safari.

The benefits of this for a teacher are numerous; the children were in control of their learning – literally but also they decided where they would go collectively, they were in charge of making notes, describing how they felt and what they saw and the writing they produced was fantastic. We followed this up by using a great online game called switchazoo – this enabled children to have fun making up their own creatures – which they then had to name and describe their habitat, their social interaction with other animals – if any and other facts that they felt the reader should know. It was a good way of transferring their knowledge and also for them to be able to use their imagination and create new creatures.

Our second foray into the National Park was to photograph Giraffes and once again the class was organised into the same groups and everyone settled into their roles quickly – even wearing their pith hats – which some deemed totally necessary to fit the experience. We did however encounter a creature that I had never heard of, a Zoorilla, and it was their mission to take a photo of it! So, one of the class went to the computer and ‘Googled’ it – then turned the screen around so that those on Safari and the rest of the class could see what it looked like and could find it – which we did! This clear example of the children in charge of their learning was followed by a more structured element where we went straight into the ICT suite and the task for the children was to use an outline grid from www.purplemash.com to choose 6 creatures they had met on Safari to write a short paragraph about. They had to include either the giraffe or the elephant and the other creatures were up to them using facts from the internet to support their descriptions.

Our use of the game was over a short and concentrated period at the end of the summer term for Year 6 and I firmly believe that we succeeded in using the game to stimulate their thinking in a wide variety of ways. The children developed their writing skills, their knowledge acquisition, their time management, speaking and listening skills, co-operation, scientific and geographical knowledge and they had fun. Using a game like this as a contextual hub for learning in the classroom is a very effective way of reaching out and enabling all learners to succeed and develop. It provides a clear focus with understandable links to their learning. It also allowed us to reinforce the idea that it is ok to say ‘I don’t know’ and to ‘fail’ as long as the students tried again which the game and games based learning allows us to do. It seems that Samuel Beckett’s words are ideally suited to the class and games based learning in general: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.'