Summer 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 2 // Tools of the Trade // 2TOT1

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Creative Teaching: Simulations, Games, and Role Playing


Karen DeBord
Extension Specialist, Rural Child Care
Virginia Polytechnic Institute
and State University-Blacksburg

Creative, participatory teaching techniques are important tools of the Extension trade. One such set of tools is simulation, games, and role playing. These approaches have high group member involvement while facilitating meaningful and fun learning.

Adams defines simulation as "a controlled detailed mode intended to reflect a situation found in the real world. It is a dramatic view of life existing for the serious purpose of learning about real experiences."1 Experiences such as career day and mock marriages are examples. Role playing is like simulation, but often has winners and losers. Roles are more structured and have a defined set of participants with specific times, places, equipment, and rules. Games are like play, but have an end or a payoff and involve suspense. Games may be played with teams against one another or against some impersonal force.

As long as no one is forced to participate, competition can be positive and encourage player discovery, examination, and learning.2 Often, educators will use games as ice breakers with new groups of any age. Active strategies for group involvement serve as warm-ups, to change people's attitudes, to speed up the establishment of rapport, and to ease the communication flow.

Usable Ideas

Borrowing from television game shows can stimulate ideas for group participation, by using educational questions designed to suit learning objectives. Learning games and drills can be implemented independently without a leader and conducted in small groups between peers, while role playing and simulation require more leadership and direction in assigning roles and outlining boundaries.

Numerous life skills can be developed by participating in gaming or simulation situations. Students can be introduced to difficult concepts that will be meaningful and understandable when experienced. Problem-solving skills, self-motivation, and self-confidence are enhanced through simulation experiences.

Below, I've summarized examples and ideas of games, simulations, and role-playing experiences suitable for various ages. Creative thinking and resourcefulness, as well as leader enthusiasm while presenting these strategies, are desirable in making these learning tools work effectively.

How-To Descriptions


Thanksgiving - Challenge participants to name the 12 plant foods that provide most of the calories for the world. Discover new tastes and textures through trial.

TV Game Shows - Variation of the copyrighted shows such as Jeopardy, Win Lose or Draw, and Tic Tac Toe can be used as question/answer team games for introduction of units or review. Pose questions to individuals on the team and reward the team for correct responses.

Casino - Large poker-type card games such as Black Jack may be adapted for the same reasons as above. Cards may picture items for identification such as wild plants, animals, or street signs.


Christmas in July - Schedule ski relays, tree decorating, ornament making, Santa's visit, cooking, and more to celebrate a holiday out of season. Incorporate planning, charity, disappointments, joy, and other emotions felt during holiday seasons.

Dilemma - Teams work together to figure out a creative answer to given dilemmas. Examples: Your ship is being invaded by aliens. The captain and the crew are confined to the main deck. Everybody else is quarantined to their bunks with an infectious disease. What should the healthy crew members do?

Treebuilding - For people involvement and to exemplify team efforts and leadership, build a tree of people with participants acting out the parts, complete with motions and sound effects. Begin with three people. Include the heartwood, roots, trunk, leaves, bark, and more. Narrate. Emphasize how each part is needed to form the whole.

Electric Fence - An electric fence continues for miles. You can't dig under it. A big vat of hot chocolate is slowly closing in on you. Everyone needs to get out. Tie a string to two points for the fence. Give each team of 10 a 4x4 and an adult to supervise. Talk about leadership, who was involved, why, and what leadership evolved at the completion.


IF - Students may participate verbally or written by completing open-ended statements such as: If I were older.... If I could teach everybody in the world one thing.... Sometimes I'm afraid of.... I'd like to change....

Job Interview - Videotaping enhances this real-life experience. Be sure to critique and give helpful hints following simulation.

Mock Household - Much like a mock marriage, have this interaction continue for a length of time. Incorporate budgeting, relationships, child care, chores, and other real-life experiences.


To keep up with the educational expectations of today's youth, we're called on to use innovative teaching techniques. Where resources and training programs aren't available to keep pace with our growing technological expansion, methods must be developed and used that involve active learning without depending on high technology. Simulations, games, and role playing are viable alternatives for learning about and experiencing real-life situations.


1. Dennis M. Adams, Simulation Games: An Approach to Learning (Worthington, Ohio: Charles A. Jones Publishing Company, 1973).

2. Ibid.