The new school year is an opportunity to begin to build a collaborative learning community. But it won’t happen on its own. With new children or a new dynamic, it’s important to make your class a safe place for children to feel like they can make mistakes and to build a sense of belonging. This is where community building games or icebreakers can be invaluable. But as well as developing a sense of community and for the children to get to know each other, they are an ideal opportunity to develop computational thinking skills.
One of my favourite games for a new class is 'Minefield'. In the game, the children are split into two groups and stand on either side of a large grid marked out with masking tape. Depending on the age of your children you can increase or decrease the size of the grid. As the name suggests, there are a number of mines within the grid and only the teacher knows where they are. There is only one safe route through the minefield and you have it drawn on a piece of paper in front of you (on a clipboard so the children cannot see it through the back of the paper!). Depending on the size of your group it can help to have a second adult with the plan so you can watch a group each. As the children walk from square to square you either say nothing or yell, “bang!” and they have to return to the beginning for another child to have a turn. The children need to help each other cross by remembering which squares are safe. With younger children, this can be done verbally, but older children are not allowed to speak. The aim of the game is to get all children from one side to the other.
Before starting the game discuss what good teamwork would look like and sound like. This encourages the children to collaborate effectively. If possible, have someone take photographs throughout the session to use during your debrief to identify good teamwork. It is also worth discussing different scenarios such as what to do if a child becomes discouraged or frustrated. Once the activity begins it is really interesting watching how the children interact. It will be obvious quite quickly which children are more confident and expressive. But often it is the quieter children who pay close attention and take in the correct route. At first, the children will make a lot of mistakes and it’s important to continually encourage them. Each child in turn will try to cross the minefield, using their own judgement as well as following instructions from their team. When they reach the midpoint, the team on the opposite side will guide them through the minefield and they have to carefully pass one of the friends. Usually, once one or two children have made it through the minefield the rest of the class complete it quite quickly and the sense of achievement and celebration is wonderful. It is also a fantastic activity as it continues until the group achieve their goal.
It is essential to debrief the activity at the end. Discuss the children’s emotions throughout the activity as well as the strategies, skills and thought processes that proved effective. Using the photographs, discuss what good teamwork looked and sounded like and share any difficulties they had.
Children develop a variety of computational thinking skills and approaches during this activity. First and foremost, they are collaborating and persevering. They are using logic to predict where the clear path will be. Each group is creating their own algorithm to allow safe passage through the mines. An extension of this activity could be that the children are not allowed to point where they want their friend to step but have to draw it. In the debrief session the children are evaluating how well they completed the task and how these skills and dispositions could help them in class.
Ultimately, at the start of the year, the aim is to develop a collaborative community and this activity is one way to achieve that. But if they can develop their computational thinking along the way, all the better.
by Steve Lewis