Professional Educator - Museum Professional - Digital Storyteller.

Let's Learn Something New

Using D&D to teach collaborative thinking and social development to elementary school students 

It’s 2017 and I’ve found myself professionally playing tabletop role-playing games three times a week. On Monday evenings, it’s Coriolis at the Center for Social Innovation with my regular Level Up Gaming group. On Saturdays, it’s Coriolis in the morning followed by 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons in the afternoon at the Royal Ontario Museum. Now, I’m facilitating an after-school 5th edition D&D group at a “progressive education school” called the Study Academy.

So how did this all happen? While developing a collaborative project for Level Up Gaming with Anderson Todd – the Assistant Director of the Consciousness & Wisdom Studies Lab at the University of Toronto – I was introduced to the Principal of the school, Jason Krell. Jason was keen on introducing new extra-curricular programming for the students of the school, particularly for the younger students, and was immediately interested in what I could offer. Bryan Levy-Young, the Founder of the Study Academy and Dean of Admissions & Student Services, has been incredibly supportive of my work so far. Two sessions in, and it’s been an incredibly supportive and encouraging work experience.

The Study Academy is a coeducational “progressive education school” that spans grades 4 to 12. The school offers a highly collegial environment; with its staff believing that the learning process should be adaptive, personalized, and ongoing. Learning at this school isn’t confined to lecture-based classrooms, and students learn independently and actively within a supportive community that equally values scholarly achievement and personal development. It’s the kind of school I wish I could've gone to. Based on what I know about my learning style, I would’ve greatly benefitted from this kind of education. This is why I’m so excited to be running an after-school program here! The Study Academy is one of the best educational institutions that I’ve been able to collaborate with – they seek to equip students with not only academic knowledge but with the social skills and personal self-awareness to thrive in and out of the classroom. At this school, teachers run discussion-oriented, personalized, and collaborative classes – the same principles that underlie my teaching modality with games. Amazingly, there is a lot of overlap between my Dungeons & Dragons programs at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Study Academy. Many of my current and former students happen to attend this school! Anderson also runs a weekly D&D 5e group at the Upper School (grade 9-12) with a couple of my former students who are now too old to attend the ROM program.

My current group is comprised of students from the Lower School (grades 4-8) of the Study Academy.  My group of six students all fall under the grade 5-7 range.

So how have the games been running?

At the start of every session, we play a quick game of Happy Salmon to warm up. I wrote half-finished characters from each of the basic classes in the Players Handbook, leaving the name, personality, ideals, bonds, flaws, and appearance up to the kids. With a single Players Handbook between the seven of us, the mechanical components of creating characters from scratch would really slow us down. That, and it’s more about the story anyway.

Despite only filling out half of their character sheets independently, they still relished the opportunity to create a backstory for the character they chose. J, who is also a student of mine from the ROM with a lot of RPG experience, proudly declared his character’s backstory.

I’m Fireblood, the half-elf sorcerer!” he declared. “He has the blood of dragons and was once a general of the Dragon Queen Magliotous…until he found out she was EVIL!
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Shortly after J had modeled that we were all gaming in a judgment-free space, all of the other kids without any D&D experience joined in. After that, they were on their way. The story began when they were hired by the commander of a dilapidated fortress to venture into a desert wasteland in search of a military defector. Fearful that the soldier would sell secrets of the fortresses structural weaknesses to the feared Heralds of the Dragon Queen, my players ventured forth. Since J had invested creative energy into their character’s backstory, I returned the favor. Down the line, the Heralds of the Dragon Queen will be a splinter group of the Dragon Queen Magliotous’ army. A perfect opportunity to reward role-playing and contributions to the narrative. Funny thing is, he would later pull me aside and request that the villain be the one he created!

One of the first-time players, S, is playing a human druid who’s best friend is a merfolk. She’s amazingly maintained an accent for every piece of dialogue her character contributes to the narrative. I can’t even do that!

But what’s impressed me the most is their willingness to collaborate, seek feedback from each other, and patiently approach each situation I present them with. Every encounter they’ve stumbled upon, every questionable NPC (non-player character) I introduce to their characters, and every creature they’ve faced has been met with discussion and respectful debate. Should we attack it? Can we go around this? Will this cause us to lose time? We don’t want the traitor to get too far ahead of us! This is the kind of supportive, collaborative thinking I’m happy to facilitate with a game like Dungeons & Dragons. It’s the reason why I’m very excited to be working with this school.

If you'd like to try integrating tabletop role-playing games into your classroom or host a workshop/gaming session in your school or home, get in contact with me! You can learn more about my consultation services at danielhkwan.com/consultation

- Daniel