Research and Representation: Climbing Into Our Family Tree and Finding Our Roots: Part 2

Once the third graders created their collaborative timeline to think about their ancestors and the historical events that shaped them, they began working on a new way to represent their learning – the creation of a history game that will encompass four centuries (1600 to 2000) and incorporate elements of their family tree and historical research. It’s altogether far too easy to dismiss the creation of a game to show children’s thinking – play is what they know best.  How much learning could there be behind the creation of a history game? Below is a snapshot of their process, not only to show how the children arrived at representing their research, but also to provide a glimpse into how heavily invested they all came to be through the high level of passionate discourse, negotiation, cooperation, and intersubjectivity that was part and parcel of their methodology.  Each and every discussion and design decision reflected their thoughtful deliberation, careful consideration, and mutual respect.  Consensus was paramount in constructing a game that would satisfy all of our history researchers – and honor their ancestors.


  • Max H:  I have an idea that we could make a game. [We could] use our timeline information to make a game.  Use dates when something big happened – bad or good. Take that information and make your ancestors part of the game.
  • Juliette:  If we do that, we could do all the different things in their lifetime.  When you travel to now, you see snapshots [of your ancestor’s life].
  • Gabriella: Cards could be experiences, artifacts…
  • Reese: Knowledge points should be listed on the bottom of the card with the information and pictures.
  • Lila: Some cards would give information about someone’s ancestor and others would be more general.

As we began to shift into this representation phase to show what the children had learned, we revisited a previous conversation from the earlier phase of our research.  How might we show time?  What does time look like?

They also began thinking about board games and the game mechanics they are already familiar with, like Life and Monopoly.  Their early game designs reflect their desire to combine these seemingly disparate concepts – what they imagine time and timelines look like, what they know board games typically look like, and what their history timeline game might look like:

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Among the initial ideas:  Gabriella’s idea that the game could be conceived in terms of neighborhoods.  Each neighborhood could be one of the four centuries, streets could be decades, and the year an ancestor was alive could be their address.  You would roll a die to progress forward through the game and if you rolled a certain number on the die, a time traveling mailman would come to your house, to deliver an artifact or document. Graeme suggested a time traveling mailman on a time traveling bike.  Other students proposed the idea of incorporating an artifact store where you could trade in knowledge points for artifacts.

  • Reese:  What would we do with the game when we’re finished?  [Having] a mailman wouldn’t be like being in your ancestor’s shoes.
  • Lila:  Maybe it’s like a game of Life except it’s history.  You start in 1600.  You’d have all these different events [like] a stop sign at the Civil War, then you either fight or keep moving.

At this point, there was quite a lot of disagreement about the goal of the game.  Many students first thought that the goal would be to simply move through the game, gather as much information as you could collect about history, and simply survive.  There were others who proposed creating a different game for each century, and then there were heated discussions about whether or not players would play as themselves or as the ancestors. Throughout it all, we continued to remind the children:  What do you want people to learn from the game?

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  • Max H:  We want them to learn what we know about how it’s important to know your ancestors…Robbie thought that each century could be a different board – with all the big events…
  • Robbie:  I was sorting [artifacts] from each century, and put it in a box for each century from the timeline.
  • Sam:  If we make more than one[game], it will take a lot longer to get it finished.  If we did separate games, we’d probably start arguing about which game is better.
  • Max H:  We should have only one game.  Each group works on a part of it so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming.  We should brainstorm about what goes into the game so that we don’t get silly about it.  We’re not going to be able to add every single idea from each group.  We should agree on what to make and what we shouldn’t.
  • Alexander:  We need to make the game big enough to make everyone feel part of the game.

In the end, it was decided that it was essential that players collect as much information as possible, through experiences, documents, and artifacts.  They began to imagine the game as a bridge – arriving at the understanding that the goal is to collect historical knowledge through game play. Incorporating information about history and their ancestors, the children decided to create experience, artifact, and document cards and “challenge” spaces on the board to weave the personal and the historical together.

  • Gabriella:  Cards could be experiences, artifacts…
  • Reese:  Knowledge points should be listed on the bottom of the card with the information and pictures.
  • Lila:  Some cards would give information about someone’s ancestor and others would be more general.
  • Max:  [We should make] a score card to tally up artifacts, documents, experiences, and knowledge points.  A score card streamlines it [calculating points at the end].
  • Max P:  You collect knowledge from the game.
  • Reese:  Our ancestors should be there [as part of the game] but maybe we don’t play as them because it wouldn’t make sense for the time they are in.  We should be able to meet people to inherit [things] or to help you through [the game]…

Other passionate discussions included these topics of deliberation:

  • “Winning” the game:  In order to keep players from feeling frustrated, Alexander proposed that this should not be a winning game, but a collaboration game instead.  “You’d put all your artifacts in a museum and set up a museum.” [It was later decided to incorporate a time capsule at the end of the game in lieu of a museum].
    • Eventually, we agreed on a compromise – at the end of the game, all players will tally up their knowledge points.  While the “winner” will have the most knowledge points, the real end of the game consists in all the players sorting through their various cards to determine which three cards would be the best choices to place within the time capsule on the board (those that they collectively agree would have the greatest historical importance for future generations).
  • Whether or not money should be part of the game:
    • Reese:  We should be more focused on “Who Are My People?” The knowledge points help us to answer our questions about who they are. What would you buy with money?
    • Juliette: Knowledge.
    • Lila:  [We should have] money, but not to be rich…[for] spaces like “Move to America.”
    • Reese:  We need knowledge to answer our question.  Money is not as important.
    • Max H:  I think we should have money to trade or cash in for knowledge.
    • Reese:  Would we start with money?
    • Max H:  No.
    • Reese:  Well then how do you earn it?  You can’t buy knowledge.  This is a project for answering a question, this topic. Money isn’t buying knowledge.  You get knowledge from experience.
  • Whether on not to include the ancestors on the board:
    • After much deliberation, it was decided not to add miniature versions of the ancestor peeps on the board, neither as decoration nor as points of interaction.  Instead, the children agreed to put the miniature ancestor peeps in a “cheering section” inside the lid of a box that will also contain all the cards for the game (sorted by color/century).
    • Below:  the final box design – the exterior features the bridge design (which also resembled an earlier “placeholder” icon for unknown ancestors that some students incorporated into their family trees). This bridge design will also be featured on the back of the playing cards.  The interior of the box will hold the cards, the instructions, the spinner, and the agreed-upon ancestor cheering section.  Each ancestor is named with a date below their peep.

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Below:  A whiteboard record the children’s logo, card, & game board design ideas:

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After several weeks of  brainstorming and discussion, the children came to agreement upon the following elements:

  • Title: The Timeline 
  • The object of the game:  Players travel through the centuries (1600 – 2000) while collecting artifact, document, and experience cards. Each card has knowledge points, which vary depending on the artifact, document, or experience.  At the end of the game, players tally up their knowledge points.  While the winner will be the player with the most knowledge points, all players will have the opportunity to share with the group what they have learned about the past and present through the cards they have collected.
  • Game contents:  game board, spinner with 8 spaces, cards (era-specific experience, document, and artifact cards, each with different knowledge points), player pieces (researcher peeps), and individual score sheets.

2Players will play as themselves – as historical researchers – as they are the bridge to history. They created “researcher peeps” of themselves to create playing pieces for the board.  The board design went through two iterations and, after more thinking about game mechanics and logistics, the Game Design Group decided to streamline it significantly.  They began filling in the blank spaces and added in some “challenge” spots. While moves are made using a spinner, certain challenge spots like wars will require you to spin again. If you spin numbers 1 – 4, you survive the war, and if you spin numbers 5 – 8, you are injured and must go to the hospital and lose a turn while you recover.

Below:  The Game Design Group works through their ideas.  They decided to imagine the timeline as a spiral.  Different colors represent different centuries (red = 17th century; blue:  18th century; orange: 19th century; green: 20th century).  Top left:  Looking at their second version to rethink and redesign their newest version. They decided to make the game smaller, with fewer spaces.  Developing and refining measurement skills have been a large part of this year’s learning, and the game designers remembered what they’d learned about unit iteration as they strove to make each space the same length, width, and height. In the words of one student, “Now it looks like a real game!”

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Other students worked diligently on the cards, complete with the agreed upon logo designs. Below: original idea for a scoring card, the final version of the score card (laminated for repeated use), and a sample of the playing cards.

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ABCOnce the cards were completed, the Card Group had to work together to decide if they had enough cards for the game.  Graeme’s first idea was to count the number of each type of card that was on the board, in each color. We found out that there were three or four document, artifact, or experience cards for each century.  The group realized that because you are playing with up to four players, these spaces could be landed on multiple times. Next, they pulled the game board down and played through the game to simulate a game being played by the maximum number of players (four).  As Graeme spun and moved for the imaginary players, they recorded the spaces that each player landed on, and then tallied up how many of each type of card that was landed on for each century. Xander, Ada, and Reese joined in for another game simulation round to collect more data, while Lila took inventory of our current cards and recorded how many of each type there are, for each century.  Creating additional cards plumped up our card decks, expanding the number of potential within-game opportunities.

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Beta Testing One: The Power of One (click here for You Tube Video)

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Above:  Robbie’s calculations about the likelihood of always spinning a one in the game. Four players continue testing the game for playability.  


Aterlierista Lauren Bishop has worked with us throughout this history project. While we still have a lot of beta testing to go before the game is completed, she has helped keep the children remain focused upon the essential history questions that they are seeking to answer through their work.  As she so astutely pointed out, the children’s choice of representation through the creation of a history game means that “through each occasion that they play the game, they will deepen their learning about history in general and strengthen their connection to their ancestors.”  “In this way,” she notes, “this mode of representation will continue to serve them and deepen their understandings over and over again.  They will interact with these experiences, artifacts, and documents many times over and develop a relationship with their family history through these interactions built into the game.”

Keeping family history alive and relevant is what building a bridge to the past and being the bridge for future generations is all about. The past is a touchstone that we continually connect with and helps shape who we are – and who we are destined to be. All points of intersection into this investigative process have been powerful catalysts individually and collectively. The children’s design work, their writing, their play, their dicussions all remind us that the bridge to knowledge is intensely personal – physically, emotionally, and intellectually. It comes from within and shapes us, and broadens our sense of possibility and wonder. History itself works within a constructivist framework, shaped by the experiences and perspectives of those who create, record, and research it. Games are play, but deeply embedded in the richness of play is social and emotional connection, intersubjective agreement, and dialogic exchange – play with purpose.  When given the time, space, freedom, and trust to joyfully and purposefully explore their ideas, children can collaboratively pursue their theories and stretch their collective boundaries, building the bridge between the unknown and the discovered.

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