Generate Brave Ideas With a New Board Game From President Lincoln’s Cottage
What role should students play in making a good town or city? How can society eliminate discrimination? Imagine getting together with a group of friends to tackle one of those questions. What sorts of concrete ideas could you imagine proposing to your workplace, your school, or your community based on your conversation?
This is the journey that the Brave Ideas board game asks students to take. Developed by President Lincoln’s Cottage, in partnership with Game Genius, the game presents students with big, sticky civics questions and asks them to devise concrete solutions to fundamental social issues. After months of prototyping and testing, it is now available to teachers all over the country.
First opened to the public as a museum and historic site in 2008, President Lincoln’s Cottage is located in Washington, D.C., several miles from the White House. The Cottage served as a retreat for the Lincoln family and was where Lincoln wrote much of the Emancipation Proclamation. While the Cottage tells the story of the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency, its mission, programming, and activities connect people to the past by encouraging them to consider how they can advocate for world-changing “brave ideas” in the present day.
The team behind the Brave Ideas game knew that it had to carry that ethos forward into classrooms. “Kids have bold and brave ideas every day,” said Director of Programming Callie Hawkins. “Those ideas deserve nurturing.”
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Playing with Brave Ideas
The idea for the Brave Ideas game originated with a grant provided by the Marder-Vaughn Center for Historic Sites, Interpretation, and Education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Currently in its inaugural year, the grant placed teachers-in-residence at five National Trust sites who worked with site staff to create civics-themed activities and curriculums that could be used in classrooms.
The Cottage staff quickly decided that they wanted to develop a board game. “We believe in taking risks with how you present content,” Hawkins explained. “There’s a natural inclination that a game might not be the appropriate way to talk about civics, but that if you can meet students where they are, in a platform they will enjoy, you can take them a whole lot further than you might not be able to otherwise.”
To make this bold and brave idea of their own a reality, they hired Brian Field as their teacher-in-residence. A teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, Field has extensive experience using a variety of games in his classes, and he has seen firsthand the way that they enhance learning: “Gameplay breaks down students’ hesitancy. They get a little more goal-oriented, and that sidetracks the vulnerability they sometimes feel in larger classroom settings.”
The Cottage also teamed up with Game Genius, which partners with organizations to develop social impact games and inject play and playfulness into programs and activities. Having already worked together to create virtual family game nights and letter-based puzzle activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Game Genius and the Cottage were well primed to take their partnership to the next level.
From Idea to Reality
Before they even began to develop the content for the game, its creators had to answer a basic question: What kind of game was it going to be? To explore their options, Hawkins, Field, and Game Genius founder Peter Williamson looked at a wide variety of existing games, including those that covered civics and related topics, as well as non-educational games with interesting mechanics or inspiring aesthetics.
It quickly became clear that despite the seriousness of the topics they wanted students to discuss, the game they created had to be whimsical as well as thoughtful. That sort of thinking inspired one of the game’s most popular mechanics, which has students win “crown cards” for coming up with the best idea, the weirdest idea, or even the worst idea.
Said Williamson, “If you can create an environment where people are laughing, having fun, willing to throw out ideas on a page, you often end up with that one game dynamic that's so unique and so essential to the game that would not have come around otherwise.”
Meanwhile, Field spent a month and a half interviewing teachers, game specialists, equity officers, college professors, curriculum experts, and more. “We wanted to create a game that would actually be used in the classroom, in a variety of different scenarios, across grade levels, and in different parts of the country,” Field explained. They quickly discovered that teachers needed games to be flexible and adaptable to the ever-changing needs of both students and the curriculum.
The result of this work is a card-based board game that can easily be broken into component parts and remixed to suit the needs of a particular classroom. Played in its entirety, a teacher first selects a “Challenge Card” that introduces a big question or idea. Individually or in teams, students brainstorm solutions, which they then must iterate on based on “Change Cards.” A Change Card might ask students to adapt an idea so that it is convincing to their neighbor, or to simplify an idea, or to imagine how an engineer would implement their idea. Finally, students vote on their favorite ideas using the scale on the game board, or by voting on winners for the highly coveted Crown Cards.
But what if a teacher already has a big question or idea, and is looking for a way to structure the class discussion? They might skip the Challenge Card stage and jump straight to the discussion, iteration, and voting parts of the game. Another teacher, looking for a tool to help students give each other feedback, might jump straight to the Crown Cards and the voting board and use them for a completely unrelated activity.
Along with consulting with experts, Field tested the game with about 200 students. No surprise—students loved collecting Crown Cards best. In fact, their enthusiasm encouraged the game development team to come up with even more types of Crown Cards. Field, though, emphasizes the importance of the Change Cards, even though students often found iterating their ideas to be the trickiest part of the game: “There is this misconception that ideas are eureka moments, but in reality ideas are developed over time by adapting and manipulating them based on self-reflection and feedback from others.”
Though the game is structured so that it can be used in a wide variety of classrooms, Hawkins is most excited to see it used to introduce civics-based thinking to students in elementary and middle school. “Everyone thinks that high school is where you hammer home civics education,” she said, “But I think it is really worthwhile to help young, really young people recognize that no matter how old we are, there are actions that we can all take on issues that matter to us.”
Regardless of age, Field hopes that all students will walk away from playing the game feeling empowered and energized: “The Brave Ideas Game gives students exposure to and practice with the tools to develop better ideas. These are the students who are going to change the world tomorrow. We need to prepare them to be creators.”
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