Constructivism at Work through Play

Lloyd P. Rieber

Lloyd Rieber is an Associate Professor of Instructional Technology at The University of Georgia.

Nancy Luke

Nancy Luke is a a doctoral student at The University of Georgia in Instructional Technology.

Jan Smith

Jan Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at The University of Georgia.

Author Note


Theoretical and Philosophical Background
Project KID DESIGNER Procedures and Design Stages
An Overview of the Games and Their Implications to School Learning

Project Resources
Game Designer HyperStudio Stack
The Games


School learning is a difficult, time-consuming process requiring deliberate effort and commitment. Schools expect children to learn a great many things about hundreds of topics traditionally categorized by subject areas. But why are certain things taught in schools and not others? Why do we expect all students to know the same things about so many topics? Why isn't it acceptable for one student to concentrate more on mathematics and another on social studies? And why do these subjects have to be taught separately? There are questions, usually unspoken, that teachers and students often confront. After all, if it wasn't important to know, it wouldn't be in the curriculum, right? An interesting question that can trap many teachers in a circular argument - if it is in the curriculum, it must be important to know and only important things to know are in the curriculum. Students look to teachers not only for guidance on how to learn, but also for reasons why to learn. It's hard to explain to a fifth grader why they have to learn about Roman numerals. Explaining that you need to learn how to add fractions because "someday you will need to know this when you get a job" carries little weight with most children. They see school as their job. The best reason they know of to try to learn these things today is that there will be a price to pay if they don't - a poor score on the next test.

But many students do not care about things like test scores, Roman numerals, or even books that adults call literature. Those who do care often do so simply to please the teacher or their parents. While many children have difficulty in school due to physical or learning disabilities that are beyond their control, others do poorly because they do not take school work seriously. As a result, schools label these children, normal in every other way, as "at risk," "underachievers," "problem students," "disruptive," etc. Perhaps most disturbing is the conflict that arises between children who are and are not successful at school. Knowing the answers and pleasing the teacher risks the loss of standing and position among one's peers. School ought not to be this way. Hard work and creative ideas should enhance, not threaten, one's self-esteem and social standing.

Children's lack of motivation to "achieve" stems from them not seeing school tasks as authentic and meaningful. When you put yourself in their position it is easy to agree with them. How authentic is getting a score of 80% or 90% correct on a test? How meaningful are answers to questions that the teacher already knows? An authentic, meaningful task is one that matters to a person at this moment. It is a problem or situation that has a purpose or goal that impacts one's life now, not later. It probably does not have a ready-made answer or solution, but instead demands much effort and hard work. What tasks or situations do elementary and middle children find authentic and meaningful? While there are undoubtedly many things to include on this list, we have chosen to focus on one - games.

The purpose of project KID DESIGNER is to enhance the natural tendency of children to explore their environment through play. We view play as a lifelong learning process, one that should not be neglected as we grow older (Pellegrini, 1995; Rieber, 1996; Rieber, Smith & Noah, in press). In this project, children have designed their own educational computer games that embed content from subjects they are studying at school. Rather than considering a game as a mere entertaining diversion for children, we consider games, and especially the act of game design, to involve sophisticated intellectual skills. Game design is a difficult problem-solving process requiring great effort and creativity. Having children design and play games to learn about subjects in school is simply asking them to call upon the same strategies that they naturally use to learn about the world outside of school.

A premise of this project is that the creative investment one takes in the design process leads directly to intellectual "ownership" of the game's content. Rather than viewing the subject matter taught in school as disconnected and unrelated to anything more meaningful than passing an approaching test, what Perkins (1986) calls "truth mongering," game design provides students with a relevant context for adapting content for a useful purpose. This is similar to the not so surprising phenomenon that if you want to learn something well, teach it. Teaching is but one form of design. Similarly, game design appears to be an activity that requires active engagement, reflective thought, and deliberate effort in order to transform content into game material.

In this paper we describe the theoretical and philosophical assumptions upon which Project KID DESIGNER is based and the procedures we have followed. Most important, we also provide an overview of the games produced by children to date and consider what these games represent in terms of learning, children's values, and the collaborative design process between and among the children and adults who have participated. Fortunately, the web based format of this article allows you, the reader, to actually play the games the children designed.

Project KID DESIGNER Procedures and Design Stages

The project has been conducted in four separate classrooms over the past three years. The project has been carried out with limited availability of computer hardware and software and under the typical constraints of public schools - compatibility and consistency with the existing curriculum, limited time, and the need to manage the project carefully so as not to disrupt the rest of the school day. The classes that have participated to date have varied widely. We label these classes 1, 2, 3, and 4 in the following sections to more clearly distinguish them (and to show the order in which they participated). Class 1 participated in January, 1994. It was small, consisting of only ten fourth grade students who had been labeled as academically "at risk." This class normally met in a computer lab. Class 2 involved the same teacher and school, but with different students a year later (February, 1995). Class 3 involved a different school and teacher. In contrast to the previous two classes, Class 3 was large, consisting of 34 fifth grade students, and only had access to the one computer permanently installed in the classroom. Class 4 participated in May, 1997 (same school as Class 3, but a different teacher). Class 4 was also large, consisting of 27 fifth grade students, and the teacher could only schedule limited time per week in the school's computer lab.

Each game was designed by a team of students with an adult assigned to support them and facilitate the design process. The actual programming of the games was done by the University of Georgia personnel using Authorware, a multimedia authoring tool by Macromedia. The project followed five design stages: 1) Orientation; 2) Identification of game design teams and brainstorming; 3) Generating a project idea; 4) Preliminary design; and 5) Final Design Stage. These design phases were followed in varying degrees of formality and the time taken to complete all the stages ranged from four consecutive school days to two months.

An Overview of the Games and Their Implications to School Learning

A total of nine games have been produced through the collaborative efforts of the four classes and adult facilitators. It is not feasible to describe any of the games in detail, rather we have chosen to briefly discuss some broad general outcomes. These outcomes are reflected in the games themselves and the events that surrounded the development cycle (i.e. the process where the game designs were built into working prototypes, and then refined in the final version). First, the games reflect one representation of how students perceive domain knowledge in a school's curriculum. Two, the game design and development process illustrate the act of collaboration between the students and also between the students and adults. Three, the project demonstrates an example of what students do when they are empowered with decision-making responsibilities.

It is reasonable to ask at what point did the children's input end and the adults' begin. Throughout the project, our goal was only to facilitate the children's ideas. However, compromises had to be negotiated as the games went into development. This is why we chose to use a rapid prototyping approach. It is difficult to know if a game design is appropriate until the game is played, even in crude form. This prototyping process allowed rich discussions to take place between the students and the adults. Students probably first recognized how seriously their ideas were being taken when they saw the first working prototype. Seeing and playing this first working example of their game provided real evidence that a group of adults valued their ideas enough to spend obvious and considerable time and effort to build the working prototype, followed by the students asked to critique the adult's work to ensure that the original design ideas were faithfully reproduced.

Given that this journal's mission is directed at middle school education and that our work thus far has been limited to upper elementary school students, it is reasonable to question the relevancy of the project's goals and findings to a middle school population. We recognize that middle school students have emotional, social, and cognitive needs which distinguish them from elementary students. However, we feel that Project KID DESIGNER supports the "middle school concept" through cooperative learning and as a project based activity (Rottier & Ogan, 1991). As previously noted, students work collaboratively with other students as well as with adult facilitators in designing their game. This is a flexibly structured situation which encourages the students to think, play, imagine, and create as a group. This type of academic experience fosters the student's sense of self-worth (Rubinstein, 1994). The students begin the project with simply an idea and end the project with a playable game; this tangible artifact of their work certainly represents a great deal to each individual student and to the collective group.

As a project based activity Project KID DESIGNER involves the application of prior learning, the organization of ideas, a positive interactive relationship with adults, and a process which breaks the project into small, well-defined stages. All of these characteristics encourage the middle school student to participate socially (with his/her peers and with adults) as well as cognitively. In addition, the project incorporates many of Doyle and Pimentel's (Doyle & Pimentel, 1993, January 13) "in" list: effort, mastery, autonomy, accomplishment, and authentic assessment. This focus on both the affective and the intellectual needs of the students seems to situate Project Kid Designer well within the middle school curriculum.

Student Perspectives on Embedding Content in a Game

One of the most important attributes of educational game design is how to embed content into the game fantasy. For example, Malone (1987) talks about a game's fantasy context to be either endogenous or exogenous to the educational content of a game. An exogenous fantasy is clearly separate from the content, such as popular "hang man" games. Any content can be superimposed on an exogenous fantasy and there is no mistaking the game from what is to be learned. Students play these games in spite of the educational value. In contrast, games with an endogenous fantasy blend or "weave" the educational content with the fantasy, such that it is not clear where to draw the line between learning and having fun. These are more difficult games to design. The children's game effectively show these two sorts of fantasy contexts. We have been quite impressed overall in creative fantasy contexts invented by the children for all of the games.

An endogenous fantasy is well illustrated in "Space Race," a game designed to teach about Newton's laws of motion. The goal of the game is to drive a "rig" around a race course in outer space, trying to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. One important concept that the students embedded into this game was the concept of mass and its relationship to acceleration. This is the basis of Newton's second law, where the force is equal to mass times acceleration (i.e. F=ma). This relationship also means that an object's velocity changes proportionally (i.e. acceleration) to changes to the object's mass (assuming that the force remains the same). If you are driving the small rig (less mass), it is easy to maneuver the rig because it responds more quickly to the controls. However, the small rig can be defeated by a roaming "alien," should they happen to meet, and the game ends. If you choose to drive the "big" rig (more mass) it will be less maneuverable, but it will defeat the alien if they meet.

In contrast, an exogenous fantasy is illustrated in "Super Cross," a game designed to teach math facts. The goal of the game is to ride your motorcycle to the finish line of three individual motor cross courses, each more difficult than the previous. Along the way, you have to successfully navigate several jumps. If you are going too slow (making it easy to maneuver) when you encounter a jump, you have to answer correctly a randomly generated math problem to proceed. If your answer is incorrect, you go back to the beginning of the course. This game was considered to be one of the most successful as evidenced by the number of other students in the class who wanted to play the game (mostly boys). But most would have preferred that the game not contain the math facts. This game uses mathematics as a penalty and we wonder how deep that perception may go for school subjects in general.

Most of the remaining games use questions as the means to bring other educational content, such as history and science, into the games. Questions are a standard way students experience and test their understanding of subjects at school. Also, all of the games require some physical action or manipulation on the part of the player, clearly an influence of video games. However, this also gives the player some level of control. Students seem to enjoy the physical challenge of manipulating game objects. Mazes appear in a third of the games. Mazes are a favorite game structure for children and lead to a variety of interesting game ideas.

Are games that children designed actually liked by other children? This is an interesting question that we have not as yet investigated. This project has concerned solely the constructivist activity of building games as a route to learning and social interaction. If the games turn out to be interesting and fun to other children, there is a secondary bonus, albeit an "instructivist" one, in that children can learn from playing games other children designed.


As the students in groups worked together, we were able to make a number of observations about the groups' dynamics. First, the group members became quite adept at the negotiation of ideas, decisions and the division of tasks. In an all-girl group, members democratically discussed the details and changes that effected the visual layout of their game. As this occurred, all voices were recognized and respected and eventually consensus was reached. Second, informally and almost spontaneously, a natural leader emerged that helped the group proceed through the design process. Although all members of the group made contributions on some level, they often turned to and deferred to the lead child when final decisions needed to be made. For instance, when the group members needed to decide on the size of a playing piece, the programmer gave them several options from which to choose. Subsequent to a brief discussion at which no final decision was reached, the group turned to their informal leader and asked, "What do you think?" When she gave her opinion, the group agreed on her assessment and went with her choice. It was of great interest that the students in the group chose to turn to their student leader instead of the adult programmer.

The last observation made about the inter-group collaboration was that the group recognized many of the particular talents of the individual members and matched tasks appropriately with these individuals. This supports Dewey's (1929) notion that "true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself" (p.3). An example of this occurred in a group in which riddles needed to be written to add challenge to the game. The group collectively turned to one group member and said, "You like riddles and are good at them, so maybe you should write some for our game." The riddle-proficient student agreed to the task. Later, the adult programmer learned that the group member appointed to write riddles was considered a low-achieving student. The group superseded this school information about the child and instead relied on their knowledge of her in social and informal settings as evidenced by the statement "You are good at riddles."

Beyond peer collaboration, each student group collaborated with us as the programmers for their design. Initially, we felt the students saw us as three teachers; we were there to "instruct" them in game design. However, we hoped that in this role, we could be, as Perkins (1986) describes, "models of ignorance" (p. 219). As part of their group, students would make suggestions about how the game should look or how the user interaction should work. We would discuss programming possibilities and even explore potential approaches that were beyond our experience. Some of the possibilities they liked, others they modified. So indeed, after several weeks of dialogue, the students came to see us not as adults who knew all the answers, but as adults who were often puzzled by design considerations, but willing collaborators in search for solutions.

As mentioned earlier, students find that there are often social risks associated to knowing the right answer to a school question. Balancing success at school with peer relationships is a delicate matter. At the end of the project in Class 4, we noticed what we feel is a significant event that turned "knowing the answer" into a valuable social commodity. One boy was playing and enjoying "Super Cross," but he clearly did not know his math facts. Rather than give up the chance to continue playing, he turned to a boy sitting nearby for answers to the math problems. In this situation, the boy with the answers became important to his friend because he knew the answer.

Often, there are students in classrooms who, for whatever reason, remain on the outside. As previously mentioned, we witnessed this situation with Class 4 during our initial visit, noticing that one boy was ostracized and teased by his classmates. During the various stages of the design process, his suggestions were often dismissed by the team. However, near the end of the project, he made a very clever design suggestion which the other team members greeted with comments which included "that's a great idea," and "yeah, let's do that." Certainly, there is no way to measure what this did to his self-esteem, his standing in the group, or his own feelings of contribution to the process. But, for at least one moment, this pariah was not treated as the outcast. A good idea, in the context of an activity valued by a social group, has a way of leveling the "playing field."


Lincoln (1995) believes that "children are the primary stakeholders in their own learning processes" (p.89). Children can become deeply invested in their learning when they feel empowered to choose what they learn and the ways in which they learn. By collaborating with children to create a game that uses their ideas, the teacher is given a peek into the ways the students think and insights into what kinds of things matter in their lives. As Lincoln (1995) states, "Children and adults combine power and create new forms of wisdom when they explore learning together" (p.89). The process of designing a game becomes synergistic in that adult and students create a product (the game) while engaging in a process that strengthens the cognitive and affective (e.g. self-esteem) skills of the students. In working with the students in Class 4, we noticed gains in their ability to collaborate and negotiate with each other and the adult facilitators, as well as their ability to hone their organizational skills. They also appeared to gain confidence in decision making about the games progress and they recognized the need to clearly articulate these details to each other and the adult programmer.

At first, the students seemed reluctant to give their own input and opinions. Perhaps they were looking for the "right" answer or were unaccustomed to having the freedom to express their ideas and have these ideas valued. After the group saw that their ideas were essential in order to construct the game, they became more open to contributing their ideas. The interchange between group members and the adult programmer became more interactive. They started to give themselves permission to be in charge. As Oldfather, Bonds and Bray (1994) point out, "We feel more strongly about giving children freedom and time for self-expression, and to let them experience what Oldfather (1993; Oldfather & McLaughlin, 1993) describes as 'sharing the ownership of knowing'. Children experience a greater sense of agency as they find that knowledge is not solely the domain of teachers or other adults, but that they can think, they can know they can experience, as Duckworth (1987) suggests, 'the having of wonderful ideas' " (p.12).

At times, the empowerment of the students created an internal struggle over values between the adults as programmers and the students as designers. The girls who designed the "Magic Carpet" game envisioned the prince saving the princess from the castle. They were asked to reconsider their vision of "who saves who," by asking if they thought about having the roles reversed - the princess saving the prince. The unanimous response was "No, that wouldn't be romantic." These students demonstrated definite ideas about gender roles and romance.

While we doubt that anyone will argue against helping whales avoid being caught in a fishing boat's net ("Ocean Exploration"), we wonder how many adults will object to the demonic tone of "Maze of the Minotaur." For example, in this game there is a devil-like monster that is "awakened" when the player strays off of the maze path. There is also a demonic voice that plays when the player is sent to the "dungeon." Interestingly, a boy was able to create this sound by recording his own voice and then replaying it back at 50% normal speed - a creative technique he learned on his own. In "Space Race" one needs to avoid the roaming "alien," thus giving in to the stereotype that "beings" not like us are to be feared and not trusted. The message is clearly "kill first and ask questions later," not unlike how the U.S. government treated Native Americans in the 19th century. One of the most interesting dilemmas occurred in the design of "Underwater Sea Quest" over the validity of the content. The content calls for a gravity-free, frictionless environment and ocean water does not meet these conditions. The children wanted to keep the context, and in our group discussions we compromised by having this game take place in a "special" ocean in which there was no friction or gravity. (See footnote)

Undoubtedly, many will find other objectionable elements in the games or game elements that conflict with their values. But because the students were the designers, and our role was that of consultants/programmers, they retained control of the game's content (even when our values conflicted with theirs).


As previously mentioned, the project has been carried out within the typical constraints of a public school. Most notably these included limited time and limited availability of computer hardware and software. Despite these limitations, the project has provided convincing evidence to support the hypothesis that children, can, in fact, undertake complex design projects such as these when given appropriate support. Not only have the children proven to be capable designers, they have been willing and able to work collaboratively in groups that include their peers and adults. The students have shown the ability to grow intellectually and emotionally in this process. The students recognize when they and their ideas are being taken seriously by their friends and adults. Mutual respect is one result. While the project has not been easy to manage at times, we are slowly identifying obstacles and ways to overcome them. The design phases discussed here, the support tools generated thus far (e.g. HyperStudio Game Design Stack), and the inevitable improvement expected in authoring tools all suggest that computer game design is a learning environment worth considering. Games, electronic and otherwise, are a significant part of the children's lives and social interactions - to engage children in the topic of computer games and their design in a classroom is asking children about something they know a lot about and to show that their ideas carry value and worth.

An obvious criticism of the project has been the reliance on university personnel to program the games based on the children's design ideas and the game objects that they constructed (i.e. graphics, directions, rules, etc.). It was never our intention to suggest that the project is at a stage to be readily implemented by teachers who do not have this support. Other projects, such as that conducted by those at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Harel, 1990; Kafai, 1994), have worked with schools who have dedicated large blocks of time to have students learn programming sufficiently to program their own games. We did not have this luxury, working instead with schools interested in the project to supplement, not supplant, the regular curriculum.

While the children who have participated in the project thus far could not have programmed the games to the degree we were able (at least not in the time allotted), this does not mean that other approaches should not be considered. The long history of children programming with Logo shows that children are more adept and more able to handle cognitive tasks than adults first suspect. Although we support the idea of children assuming more of the authoring/programming and giving them powerful computing tools, the real problem we foresee is time. Most schools are simply either not willing or able to dedicate the large blocks of time necessary to have children learn authoring tools sufficiently to program computer games. But authoring tools change quickly. Many of the multimedia authoring tools currently in use in many schools - HyperStudio, Digital Chisel, MicroWorlds Project Builder (i.e. Logo) - enable the design process much more effectively than the tools available even just ten years ago. We expect the next generation of authoring tools to be even more compatible with the interactive demands of computer gaming. For example, Cocoa ( (previously known as KidSim) is one tool currently available from Claris Corporation specifically meant for children to design rule-based programs such as simulations and games.

Even at this early stage, there are many practical aspects of the project that can be readily implemented by creative teachers open to constructionist principles. One idea is to have high school students already enrolled in multimedia design classes, common in many districts, collaborate with elementary and middle school classes. The high school students would handle the programming just as the university personnel did in this project. (If these campuses are not located near each other, making it difficult to collaborate in person, web-based approaches to collaborative design might be explored.) Of course, game design does not have to be limited to the computer. Teachers may find their classes eager to engage in building games using the technology of paper, cardboard, markers, and glue. We admit, though, that much of the authenticity of this project has come from the children's desire to be part of the "inner culture" of computer games.

Finally, others will be wondering about other outcomes not mentioned here, such as whether or not the students learned more about math, science, history, language, or Greek mythology. While this is a reasonable question, it is a fairly uninteresting one given the state of the project. Play involves long-term consequences to learning and are not well evaluated on short-term measures (Glickman, 1984; Singer, 1995). However, we anticipate that the next stages of the project will begin investigating such questions. For now, the project has demonstrated that game design gives children an authentic, meaningful context to apply ideas from school subjects - they find designing a game to be a good use of the curriculum and it is a process that make sense to them. Likewise, the project has given us insights as to how children perceive and value school subjects.


Footnote. Actually, the superfluidity of liquid helium seems to match these characteristics (based on the work of the late physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman; see Gleick, 1992), so perhaps there is a precedent after all for such a "water world."

Author Note

We thank the students and faculty at County Line Elementary School, Winder, Georgia and Benton Elementary School, Nicholson, Georgia for cooperating with us on this project. We especially thank the cooperating teachers - Cindy Ellington, Holly Ward, and Amy Halley.

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