Escape Room Shenanigans

New year, new me, I guess. It’s taken six months to write a blog post, after I met all sorts of cool people who use Twitter and blogging to take their teaching and teacher communication to the next level, but here goes.

I love scavenger hunts, the kind where you don’t sleep in college because you are spending your time finding or making the most creative pieces to get points for your team. Generally I’m not a great team player, but the adrenaline of a scavenger hunt helps me come together with other people, even if I don’t know them well.

I experienced my first escape room during a staff retreat, and while the time crunch (and zombie theme) stressed me out more than a standard scavenger hunt, I loved seeing my fellow teachers in a different light, as we scrambled to find clues and solve multidimensional puzzles so we could escape before the zombie got loose. We escaped, and it felt GREAT. The other team of teachers didn’t escape, but they said they had fun too. Otherwise, I’ve never been a participant in a commercial escape room. But it piqued my curiosity about how to use a full-body game environment to get kids to physically move through a series of mathematical challenges.

Last time I told people about escape rooms, I didn’t start with what an escape room is. Here goes, in general terms:

  • You’re locked in a room. Usually something catastrophic is on the verge of occurring. Maybe you’re going to be eaten by a zombie that’s trapped in the room with you, maybe you’re escaping a sinking ship. Or perhaps you’re trying to find treasure, if you prefer the less cataclysmic approach. Harry Potter fans, there are some “escape from Azkaban” rooms out there that sound pretty baller.
  • You need to open a bunch of locks or at least one big lock. It’s fun when they’re different kinds (directional locks, alphabet locks, number locks, key locks). But what’s even more fun are the clues that are less obvious, like riddles that lead you to certain pages in a book in the room, or a UV pen that lets you read something written in invisible ink.
  • These clues direct you to how to open the lock/s, and in the end, you open a lock that gets you out of the room. Some variations have you open a lock that let’s you into the prize in some locked box, but that feels less like an “escape” and more like a treasure hunt. Whatever fits the theme, I guess.
  • You have a certain amount of time. Generally commercial game rooms run 45-60 minutes. I usually do between 30 and 45 minutes for my students.
  • The game master watches as the escapees work to uncover clues that progressively get them closer to escaping the room. The game master can offer clues as needed (I find this helps me offer “hints” where teams need them as they’re working on the mathematics), and they can also watch group dynamics and share observations about teamwork and how different people operated. Commercial game rooms often share different kinds of superlatives or team roles that they saw participants take on. It’s a cool way to discuss group dynamics with students.
  • A commercial game room usually has between five and ten people in the room at a time, and they’re all working toward a common goal. In a classroom, this is trickier. So let’s move into doing this in a classroom.

When do you do an escape room?

I use escape rooms primarily for my review day before a test. It lets students see what they can do without teacher intervention, since I mostly step back and observe (though I do step in to support if I see the struggle becoming frustrated rather than productive). I do two-stage tests, where students also do a group part of their test, so this also builds some team spirit before test day where they know they will be accountable to each other. One time, I used an escape room as a final performance task for a probability unit.

How do you get this running when you have twenty-plus people in the room?

I have seven teams in my class all the time, so I keep students in their 3-4 person teams for the escape room. I know some people have the teams working to collect clues that the entire class then uses to answer a final riddle or open a final lock. Every team’s contribution is necessary in order for the whole class to win by escaping the room. In my whopping three-and-a-half escape rooms of experience, I have had the teams working to escape on their own. They aren’t necessarily competing (there aren’t limited resources) against each other, though they are watching who is moving more quickly through the puzzles. I’d be interested to try it the other way in the future, but for now, it builds a lot of individual team spirit as each team works to escape.

Umm…what’s the point of escaping the room? Won’t they just get out when class lets out anyway?

Yeah, it helps to build the hype. I’ve done this in multiple ways. One way is the to hype the reward. My first escape room, the prize was getting five minutes with the next day’s test, which was locked in a locker out in the hallway. Nobody escaped that time…oops. I’ll get to that later. The next time, the prize was some extra credit. The next time, there was a “probability mathemagician starter kit” (cards, dice, and a quarter). Most recently, students collected infinity stones that culminated with finding a box in the principal’s office with “I escaped 217…and saved the world”. Honestly, the puzzles and novelty ends up being more important than the reward, but I’ve learned a couple things across these different motivators. A good opener does a lot. When I just started with “hey guys, we’re doing an escape room!” kids asked why. Most recently, I started with this video. Kids were off and running and did not ask what the prize was. This was my first time theming my entire room. Having a theme is fun and more faithful to commercial escape rooms, but I don’t know if it’s necessary. It definitely entertained me though. Another things that I found helpful about this particular theme (other than the fact that I’m a Marvel nerd and was personally tickled) was that it provided students with clear checkpoints that showed that they were progressing. In earlier rooms, students needed to complete the entire escape room in order to see the payoff. Here, students collected their six infinity stones (more of a scav hunt mixed with escape room), so they saw their progress tangibly. Even if they didn’t complete the entire room, they felt proud of the progress they made. I heard students comparing how many infinity stones their teams collected.

What if nobody escapes?

This is not the goal. I have this problem, and I would love to learn from other people. I find that it can be hard to judge how much is too much for a 30-45 minute period, and the extra complication of locks, or needing to search the room, or figuring out how to find the invisible ink, adds extra time that’s not just doing the math tasks. In advance, I have tested my rooms on willing adults, but it’s not always a good indicator of how teams of seventh graders will do. The willing adults do have fun though, so I highly suggest inviting colleagues to play. In the moment, I have used hints to move things along. I don’t have a panacea here. I try to mix more straightforward and more complex problems, and I aim for five to six steps in the escape room. I’d love to hear what you do.

What kinds of tasks work for you?

I have used an escape room for solving equations and simplifying expressions. I have used an escape room for probability problems. I have used an escape room for circles. Here’s my circle escape room document, with my tasks. I like to use more explanation-based problems for things where teams need to convince me in order to get something (a key or a tool like a UV light). Computation works well for numeric locks. Multiple choice can help with combination locks if you just change up the answer options so they aren’t just A, B, C, and D. I’ve used puzzles where the answers make a shape and that provides a clue. The possibilities are limitless, depending on how much time you’re willing to put into the making of puzzles. My first escape room was so involved that I was exhausted when it was over. I’ve been able to streamline it a bit since, particularly by using the same or similar questions and puzzles and having multiple copies for different teams or putting them in different places for different teams. You don’t have to make seven different rooms.

What tools are helpful?

  • Locks of all kinds. I have used locks from around my house, around the school, purchased an alphabet lock from Walmart.
  • A lockbox if you can find one.
  • Invisible ink and UV light. You can get cheap ones on Amazon (kids party favors). I tried to make invisible ink with lemon juice that was supposed to become visible as heat oxidized it. That flopped. I need to play with it more, but I’m going to invest in some invisible ink pens for 2018. I used them last year and kids loved them.
  • Books that you can hide clues in. You can use them as answers to riddles and the location of the next puzzle/problem.
  • Nooks and crannies to hide clues in or tape clues under.
  • Computer or iPad where you can change the password to an account. I have done both. The iPad is tricky if there are too many incorrect attempts, since it locks. The computer lets you use alphabet and number, which is great. I have made a video for probability questions, made a new account on my laptop, and had students get into it to access the video.
  • Protractor door. I didn’t take a picture of mine, but here’s one from the internet. It helped me direct students to different classrooms to ask for clues, as they escaped the room.
  • Unused hallway lockers. It’s a great place to hide final or close-to-final words for teams.
  • Willing colleagues. I had students go to teachers and ask them for a clue during my last two escape rooms. It helps if they don’t have a class, but it’s also entertaining for a kid to walk into a room and say to an unsuspecting teacher, “CLUE!”

Escape rooms are a riot. They take some time to put together, but I’ve gotten more efficient as I’ve done more. They’re like a scavenger hunt but feel more puzzle-based. When you can help students stay in proper flow, knowing how to drop hints if teams are getting so stuck that they’re frustrated, teams feel major pride over what they accomplish. When I first did an escape room with kids last year, and then when I did my first of this year just a few weeks ago, students turned around and asked if we could do it again tomorrow, or why couldn’t we do this every day. I’d love to hear how you do things like this. Now I need to get on a plane, so I’ll catch you later.

3 comments

  1. Awesome! Glad to see that you are writing about some of the amazing things you’re doing. Maybe this goes without saying but are you familiar with breakout EDU (https://www.breakoutedu.com/)? Seems to have a ton of the components you mentioned and they even have this new online breakouts that are less cumbersome when it comes to setting up. Just wondering for future posts, can we get some photos of this stuff? Would be cool to see it in action.

    • Thanks! I don’t know much about BreakoutEDU. I’ll have to check out. I need to remind myself better to take pictures when things like this are happening. The more engaged I am in what’s happening, the more I forget to take pics!

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