Over the Christmas holidays I experienced my first Escape Room (in Ávila, successfully breaking out in 54 minutes: see photographic proof!) and last week I held my first Escape Room for teachers on a gamification course (they broke out in 59, living dangerously!). I enjoyed both immensely. Participants work together and are extremely focused on their goal so work hard – behaviours we like to see in our students. In this blog post I’d like to look at ways to set up activities to make your own ELT Escape Room.
What is an Escape Room?
Participants are locked in a room and given a time limit to get out (often an hour). To do so they need to solve a series of puzzles, finding hints and tips along the way, using their logic, intuition and problem solving. The resolution of the final puzzle often involves finding the key to leave the room. Many Escape Rooms are elaborate affairs (for example involving hidden rooms behind paintings or bookcases), but it’s not too hard to bring a bit of Escape Room magic to our classrooms – to help our students learn or revise content, develop soft skills and, of course, to have fun. What do we need?
Narrative is a key element in gamification. We can say ‘You’re locked in a room and you have an hour to get out’ or dress up the experience a little more, escaping from a desert island or a prison – with these situations reflected in the puzzles. In my escape room with teachers, the teachers had to break out to get their hands on their company cars (I made good on the promise, but they were toy cars).
Codes and puzzles
We’ll need lots of these. There are plenty of ways to encode. A ‘Ceasar cipher’ is a classic. In an encoded message, each letter is ‘shifted’ a number of spaces forward in the alphabet. For example, ‘Escape’ becomes ‘Ftdbqf’ with a shift of 1 or ‘Guecrg’ with a shift of 2. There are websites to help you encode and suggest different ways of encoding, like this one. Providing a ceasar cipher wheel (see picture of model from google and the wheel I made) makes it easier for students to decode, once they know the shift – this can itself be a riddle. Eg The number of countries in Great Britain (3). You can decide whether to hide the cipher and whether you need to show the students how to use it.
Let’s do an example
Find the first challenge. Where is it?
zsijw ymj yjfhmjw’x ijxp
“To work out the shift, find out how many European cups FC Barcelona did lift”
Feel free to google this to find the shift and decode the clue on one of the above websites (or by making a wheel or by counting)!
So, they’ve won five and the next challenge is under the teacher’s desk
Boxes and combination locks
The pupils find the challenge. Ten words with a message:
To get your three-digit code, find words which mean the same as
- You don’t understand
- You need something to eat
369 of course.
What do pupils do with that code? It’s the code to open a combination lock on a box (hidden or in view. You can tell them what the code’s for, or not) with the next challenge inside. Have a look at the box I made: the lock was €1.20, the box €2.00 and the little hooks €1.
Codes using different fonts
What could the next challenge in the box be? Perhaps a text (with content / vocab / grammar you’re working on) with some words encoded.
Let’s imagine we’re working on the weather:
I’ve encoded these words with the windings font on MS Word. To help students, you could give them the alphabet (or part of it…) in windings (perhaps without telling them it is the alphabet) Here it is:
So, the students need to work out the words and tell you them (perhaps explaining them) to access the next challenge.
Fill in the gaps to make a word
Or, we could use the text in a different way. Fill in the gaps:
It isn’t always _______ and _________ in the desert! In January 2015, because of _________weather, there was enough ________to build a _________.
D)SNOWMAN O)STORMY L)SUNNY U)SNOW C)HOT
If the students fill in the gaps correctly they make a new word (CLOUD), which you probably won’t need to point out. What do they do with this word? You might have a cloud stuck on the wall and the next challenge is hidden behind it.
Mirror, mirror on the wall…
How about a jigsaw puzzle for our next challenge? When you complete the puzzle, you can read the message. What about writing the message in reverse so you need a mirror to read it? Something like this:
There is a website to put text in reverse and you can look on google images for a transparent jigsaw image to put over the top of it.
(Look in the art cupboard)
Other activities I tried included encoding part of a URL– cracking the code allowed participants to access the website: this was a video. The challenge was to answer a comprehension question and to count up the number of times different items appeared in the video: they needed this number for the next challenge.
Practical considerations and wrapping up
These activities are just a short taster of the types of activities you can do in an Escape Room. Here are one or two practical considerations:
*How many students are in your class? You’ll probably want to put them in teams, so you’ll need to make resources for each team (four boxes, four puzzles etc). I won’t lie, it takes a bit of time! Perhaps it’s something you can use with multiple classes though, or something your colleagues might like to try. I guarantee your students will love it and will learn from the experience.
*Handing out the challenges one by one is easier to manage than having them hidden, though takes some of the fun away. I used a mixture.
*Clues. It’s fine to give clues. But don’t provide them too quickly as that removes the sense of achievement and you’ll probably find students are motivated and so won’t give up too quickly.