K-12 educational escape rooms on the rise

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Fifth-grader Abdullahi Ibrahin, 10, finds the clue for the idiom inside a cut-out section of a book during his team search at Owen Intermediate School in Belleville.

Belleville — Gabrielle Johnson's sixth-grade students are not half asleep at desks or mindlessly staring at the clock. They are on their feet trying to break out of class.

Johnson has set up an escape room inside Owen Intermediate School as part of a lesson in English language arts that focuses on idioms, those phrases that don't mean exactly what they say.

Borrowing ideas from adult versions of the game, escape rooms are an increasingly popular style of K-12 teaching that educators say offer a creative way to get students engaged with material and excited about problem-solving.

They include the classic game components — teamwork, clues and prizes — with an educational twist aligned to traditional classroom lessons and curriculum standards.

Owen Intermediate School in Belleville created a CandyLand-like escape room for learning English language arts.

Johnson and the school staff created the escape room from scratch, spending hours transforming an empty classroom into a colorful Willy Wonka candy factory where teams of students hunt for idiom clues at candy-enhanced stations around the room.

They must use the information to win their way out of the game in a limited amount of time.

"Your goal is to get out of this Candyland. You have to answer questions on story structure, setting, the climax, the rising action. You will answer those as a team," Johnson told her students.

Armed with instructions, students excitedly took off in teams and ran to stations around the room, moving quickly to open jars of pretend candy, look underneath boxes of treats and through candy-colored bottles of fluid to find the phrases such as "It's raining cats and dogs!"

After locating the hidden idiom, one student yells: "I got it! I got it!" while a nearby group quickens their pace to search for more clues around the room ablaze with color, fabric candy creations and pretend sugary drinks.

Fifth-graders Porsche Cozart, 10, left, and Dallas Brown, 11, flip through cards searching for a hidden idiom.

Students take clues back to a laptop computer where they must read and answer questions. Correct answers lead them to a "golden ticket" and eventually a way to escape.

Melissa Lloyd, principal of Owen Intermediate School, said the escape room creates unique learning experiences for students and allows them to find a deeper connection to the underlying subject at hand, which is part of a larger lesson aligned to the state's English language arts standards. 

"We have to make learning high-end and tap into their interest, learn to tie it to those things we are trying to teach. This is invigorating for teachers and offers a 21st-century approach to learning for students," Lloyd said.

The classroom is a lab that changes every few weeks depending on the subject matter. It is used by multiple teachers at Owen across several subject matters. Students spend the majority of their time in traditional classrooms learning lessons and the escape room is used to cement the information in a fun way, educators say.

"There is a sense of urgency with this that they don't have in their classrooms," Johnson said. "And it shows what great teamwork they can do."

Owen student Bryan Smith, 11, was in the candy-themed escape room. One of the idioms he and his team found that led him to an escape was "Get your head out of the clouds."

"Me and my friends, we were looking for clues and all taking a part in this," Smith said. "We answered questions. We cooperated and there were no arguments."

Earlier this fall, the classroom was turned into a Fear Factor room where math and science concepts such as identifying matter and measuring properties were explored. Teachers used the popular "What's in a box?" challenge in which a student must put his or her hand inside a box and feel an object or materials without seeing it. 

The next room will be a glow room with black lights connected to science and another subject, Lloyd said.

Quran Jackson, a sixth-grade English teacher at Owen, said this approach gets students into different environments and into the critical stage of applying their knowledge.

After experiencing the room, students are more able to conceptualize what is being asked on a written or digital test.

"They can draw upon the experience and make the connections a lot better," Jackson said.

More teachers across the United States are using escape rooms as teaching tools, including Los Angeles-based teacher Rachel Zonshine with Aspire Public Schools, a public charter schools system.

Zonshine, a teacher for 11 years, said she started using the concept last year after her principal encouraged teachers to step out of their comfort zones.

"It's super engaging; the kids just love it. They still talk about it; its a magic-making moment for them," Zonshine said. "They collaborate, use critical thinking skills, use engineering skills and thinking skills. They are revisiting those so they get reinforced in their brain."

Gabrielle Johnson, center, 34, a math and reading interventionist teacher, hands out instructions to fifth graders Austin Knowlton,10, left, and Keith Duke,10, for the next section of the ELA course.

Not a single student is off task, she says, because they have a group of peers holding them accountable.

"They have to find clues and be accountable. Those are all like the skills they need in the real world," she said.

Examples of escape rooms have been on display at the National Science Teachers Association conference, Zonshine said, and some kits for escape rooms are sold online by education companies, such as Breakout EDU, which sells physical and digital games.

"I think it will be something that continues to grow and gets bigger. There are so many different ways you can do it. It's such a good tool to review before tests," she said. 

"Most kids love this challenge. They love anything that 'gamifies' learning."

Brian Peterson, president of the Michigan Science Teachers Association and a fifth-grade science teacher at Rochester Community Schools, said escape rooms give every student a voice, especially those introverts who are often not heard from among the usually outspoken students.

"Because it's not a question-answer regurgitation, you have to do some deeper thinking. It allows some kids the time and opportunity to speak out. They beg for it. Literally," he said.

Owen Intermediate School in Belleville has created a CandyLand-like Escape Room for learning English Language Arts. Students explore figurative languages in the room and find clues in the form of idioms to solve the problems.

Peterson just started using escape rooms in his lessons this school year, creating them from materials he finds or gets for free. This fall, he has one for biomes that gives students 45 minutes to search for codes and clues using lockboxes.

"It does reinforce things like critical thinking and communication skills with each other," he said. "It really takes content and practice and intertwines it. You can really make it fun."

The escape room approach also reinforces teamwork and problem-solving and teaches time management, he said.

"With these kids, it seems like more and more things are solved for them," Peterson said. "When they reach a dead end, they give up. You can’t in this."