Ah, escape rooms! An exciting instructional strategy you can use to get students engaged in your classroom. As cool as they sound, I admit they can be *slightly* overwhelming to think about. All the locks. All the puzzles. All the possible chaos. All the confused students…..I hope I can alleviate some of your concerns in this post, though, because using social studies escape rooms really is an effective strategy and a great alternative to lecture and note-taking. Before we continue, I have written other blog posts in this series called “7 Ways to Step Away From the Lecture Podium & Revitalize Your Social Studies Classroom.” If you are serious about expanding your teaching toolbox, you can read about implementing stations, simulations, and political cartoons in your classroom. There *might* be freebies in each of those posts, too, to help you get started 😉
Out of the instructional strategies I am sharing through this blog series, escape rooms and simulations are definitely the most labor intensive, but I promise you they are SO worth the effort! Escape rooms definitely require you being OK with letting go of control and letting students struggle…because let’s face it, when it comes to escape rooms, the STRUGGLE is REAL. Not just for you, but for your students!
WHAT ARE SOCIAL STUDIES ESCAPES?
**side note- I am going to call escape rooms “social studies escapes” from here on out because that is what I like to refer to them as. I teach social studies, so it makes sense 🙂
Escape rooms are scenarios where people have to solve a series of challenges or puzzles in order to “escape” or win the game. You can visit etablishments that offer the escape rooms experience, and you can also bring that experience to your classroom for your students! I suggest sticking to a one day escape room activity because you don’t want students to go home and try to figure out the challenges, and you also want there to be a strict time element because that is what gets their hearts pumping! In my 55-minute class, I would expect my students to be able to solve 6 challenges (depending on the difficulty level). For classes that are 90 minutes, I would expect 8 challenges to be solved. Now, with that said, remember that escape rooms should not be solved by all of your students if they are appropriately challenging. It is supposed to be difficult to solve escape rooms so that those who do finish feel a strong sense of accomplishment…and those who don’t know they gave it their all. Escape rooms are not an “everyone wins a trophy” game. Escape rooms are a “some people will escape and some won’t, and that’s OK!” kind of game (as long as they are working hard and not goofing off or giving up –> more on “giving up” later).
- Limited on technology? Social studies escapes don’t need ANY technology. Seriously! The ones I create don’t use QR codes or other internet based sites, so there is literally no need for any technology. I do include a digital lock option, though, so if you don’t want to buy the actual locks, you can have students enter the codes in a Google form before moving onto the next challenge. If you don’t want to do digital locks OR buy actual locks, then you can have students write the code on a recording page and show you or a fellow student for check off and to receive their next challenge.
- Fewer discipline issues– When students are self motivated, we don’t have to monitor their behavior. We don’t have to redirect their attention. We don’t have to ensure they are on task and doing what they should be doing. They are invested and interested. This leads to fewer discipline issues that you have to handle. Who doesn’t want that?! Social studies escape will capture your students’ attention.
- Increased engagement– When students participate in hands-on activities, they become more engaged and involved in learning the content as well as using the knowledge to solve problems, explore alternative actions, and come up with their own solutions. Social studies escapes help students move beyond the surface-level learning, and they help students think outside the box to strengthen their problem-solving skills. Students are going to be using serious braincells to complete a social studies escape!
- Teaches students persistence– How many of your students give up within minutes when faced with difficult or challenging tasks? I know my students would quit after 5 minutes if they couldn’t quickly solve a problem. *This is not OK!* Students need to learn how to power through difficult tasks and continue to chip away until they have it solved. Students need to learn to try multiple approaches and test out their ideas to see if they work. Students need to learn that it’s OK to not be successful on their first try. They need to realize that even brilliant minds go through a trial-and-error process. They need to learn this crucial real-life skill now, so when they enter the world beyond school, they are prepared for the challenges that they will meet…and they will overcome them. Which means they will be successful adults. Escapes also help students strengthen their interpersonal skills (see next bullet point).
- Teaches students collaboration– Social studies escapes also teach students how to work with others in an effective and productive manner. Some students really struggle with this. Like, REALLY struggle with this. When you are giving students challenges where there isn’t a clear answer, 2 (or 3 or 4) heads are better than 1, and students need to learn how to listen to one another and communicate their ideas clearly. They will also run into confrontations where perhaps their teammates don’t agree with them. They need to learn how to communicate through disagreements to an amicable solution for everyone involved. Again, real-life skill that they must learn before they graduate school.
- Offers differentiation– Social studies escapes can easily be tweaked for different levels. You don’t need to have multiple sets of escapes. For example, I would expect my advanced class to solve more challenges than my on-level class. I would simply remove some challenges for them. Another example, you can offer clue cards to groups who are struggling. One more example, is you can allow students to complete the challenges in any order (as long as they are not created in a sequential order). The social studies escapes I create are not dependent on one another, so that means students can solve any challenge in any order and still escape.
- Critical thinking– I already mentioned how social studies escapes can improve a student’s critical thinking, but it’s worth revisiting again. Thinking outside the box is a skill that many students need to sharpen. Social studies escapes aren’t simple “yes/no” questions, nor are they answered by using information in a text. Students have to think about how the pieces fit together, and how these pieces result in a meaningful solution. Students will also get really close to solving a challenge, but they just need to refine their thinking. All of these things are required once students leave school. Let’s help prepare them now…and what better way than fun social studies escapes?!
- Social studies escapes are FUN! They offer novelty in the classroom. This type of activity is totally different from anything else students will do. Because of this, once students begin solving a social studies escape, they will be having fun and using content knowledge while strengthening those critical real-life skills. Students are in charge of their progression, so when they solve a challenge, they get such a sense of accomplishment. One class period isn’t an extremely long time, so students won’t get bored because I guarantee the majority of your students will be working close to the bell.
- Review– Depending on how you create a social studies escape, it can be an effective review of the content your students learned. You can integrate information they have already learned into the challenges they will solve, so while they are playing the game, they will also be using prior knowledge. Most students love review games, so you can add these to your bag!
HOW DO I IMPLEMENT SOCIAL STUDIES ESCAPES?
Oh, this is the fun part! Yes, there will be roadblocks for you and your students, but remember with practice comes wisdom, which means it will get easier!
- First, make sure you have adequate time. You do NOT want to rush this! Each challenge will probably take anywhere from 5-10 minutes (or maybe even longer) to solve. It really depends on how difficult you make each challenge. I found that in my 55-minute class, my students could solve about 6 challenges. Most of the social studies escapes I create have 8 challenges, so if your class is closer to 90 minutes, your students won’t be sitting around for 30 minutes with nothing to do. I *highly* recommend completing the social studies escape yourself. This will give you a better idea of how long it might take students. It will also help you learn where their trouble spots might be, so you can be ready and prepared to help them out if needed.
- Next, make sure each challenge has everything needed for students readily available. I will go over in detail how I organize each challenge, but using manila envelopes are really smart 🙂
- Decide if you are going to have students complete the social studies escape using digital locks or actual locks. The social studies escapes I create allow for both options. How you organize the challenges will be the same, but if you are going to use digital locks, then you need to make sure the Google form is ready to go and students know how to make a copy of it. On the other hand, if you use real locks, you will need to make sure each lock is programmed to the code for each challenge. That way, when students solve a challenge, they can remove the lock. I also recommend giving students a recording page so they can record their codes.
- Decide how you will check the codes. If you are using digital locks, the Google form will automatically check it for you. If students are using actual locks, then the lock will come off when they get it right. Honestly, you don’t even have to use locks at all. You can have students write the code down on a recording page, and then they can show you it. If they are right, you can give them a sticker and the next challenge. Or you can have one other student also be code checker.
- Once you have decided how many challenges students will solve, gathered the materials and made copies, prepared the digital locks/real locks/recording page, you now need to organize each challenge (more on that below).
- Set the mood. Come up with an enticing hook for students. This will help them get in the right mindset for the social studies escape. You just need an interesting narrative and something students would not want to happen!
- Be ready to facilitate when needed. If you did a run through of the challenges beforehand, you will have a good idea of where students might struggle. Have a plan in place of how you will help students if needed. Will you have clue cards? Will you give verbal clues? Will you model a possible solution? I like clue cards because you are allowing students to remain in control while you are offering aid. I create a few clue cards for each challenge, with each clue card offering a hint at how the challenge needs to be solved. When students figure it out, they will still feel a sense of accomplishment because they were the ones who figured it out (even though you offered a clue or two). Walking around the room, watching, listening, and just taking in students working collaboratively together, communicating with one another, and thinking critically is a wonderful way to spend a class period!
- If students finish, what will they do the rest of the class period? Ideally, you shouldn’t have that many students finish with a lot of time left. However, your first couple of social studies escapes will very much be a trial period as you are figuring out what is reasonable for your students. Most of the social studies escapes I create have 8 challenges, and because my classes were 55 minutes long, I usually assigned 6. This way if a group of students did finish, I gave them the remaining 2 challenges to work on. However, you can also have students who do finish (since there should not be very many) become code checkers for you or be responsible for passing out the clue cards to groups that are stuck.
- Lastly, don’t forget to take a picture of your students! Make signs for students to hold that show if they escaped or did not. I like to make funny signs if they did not finish because I do want them to know it’s OK to not finish. This is your chance to be a little sassy with your students (as long as they know you are totally joking!) Nothing mean, just good fun like, “I don’t even know where I am.” Oh, and don’t forget to give them whatever prize you decided on!
ONE LAST NOTE- AND THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE!
If you are going to be creating social studies escapes, PLEASE stick to the rules that apply to simulation creations.
- Don’t forget your students when planning or selecting a social studies escape. I have seen a few I would not have my students complete because I didn’t believe they were appropriate. I am not saying it wasn’t good, but I knew it would not achieve what I wanted for my students. This is where you have to use professional judgement and weigh the pros and cons. You have to know your students well enough to determine if a social studies escape would be too easy or difficult for students level-wise, but also emotionally.
- You don’t want to minimize other’s perspectives or feelings in a simulation. For example, I chose not to use a certain simulation during our Holocaust unit. Asking students to find hiding places, or pretend to be persecuted was not something I felt appropriate. I did not want to minimize how those targeted during the Holocaust felt, or how survivors of the Holocaust feel today. Those events are too immense to trivialize in a simulation or in a social studies escape. Please don’t create an escape where students have to escape a concentration camp. Please don’t create an escape where students have to complete the Underground Railroad route. These are just two examples, but you get what I am saying. Be sensitive to social studies escapes as they relate to ethnicity and race. We don’t want to oversimplify history and oppression, nor do we want to trivialize others’ experiences.
READY TO GIVE SOCIAL STUDIES ESCAPES A TRY?
I created a 6-challenge social studies escape for World War 1 you can download for FREE! Try it out, and see how your students like it. I will be adding social studies escapes to my shop regularly, so if you have an idea for one you would like made, let me know!
I would love to hear about your experience using social studies escapes in your classroom in the comment section below!