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The "Big Ideas" of Mancala Club

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

When we sat together and started designing our Mancala Clubs as a learning environment, we drew from these ideas from emergent curriculum, the learning sciences and game studies. We'll have separate posts about each of these ideas, but here is a brief overview. These design principles guided the way we structured the clubs and have been useful in other learning environments we've designed over the years. We encourage you to apply them in your own Mancala explorations.

Find the Learning in Fun

Learning Architecture: Low Thresholds, Wide Walls, High Ceilings

Focus On Why They Learn

Feelings First

Find the Learning in Fun: It's always a bit sad to us when we hear calls to "make learning fun" because for us, that's kind of like saying "make candy sweet." You only have to add more flavorings to REALLY BAD CANDY. Meaningful and authentic learning doesn't have to be made fun because fun is a key signal that learning is taking place! Something is fun when it challenges us just enough, helps us feel connected to others, and gives us new knowledge or insights. Play-based learning and emergent curriculum asks us as educators to look at what children are learning through these deeply engrossing and beloved activities.

When we truly dig into something fun, we can discover all kinds of learning going on. The learning that takes place during play also tends to burst disciplinary boundaries, integrating learning that is often isolated into decontextualized academic disciplines like "math" or "literacy."

In Mancala Club, we see students using and learning mathematical skills from counting to computational thinking as they play and solve challenges together, literacy skills, as they read and write rule sets, and social and emotional skills as they make new friends in the club, navigate success and disappointment through competition (competition is a social skill!), resolve conflicts over rules, and persevere on challenging combinatoric problems. We also see students developing inquiry practices to support their learning that mirrors practices that adults use as scientists and researchers (see David's work on authentic inquiry practices)

Learning Architecture: Low Thresholds, Wide Walls, High Ceilings

We draw a great deal of inspiration from Michael Resnick's work using LOGO and SCRATCH where he described the "architecture" of an informal learning environment in terms of its:

Thresholds: the pre-requisite materials, skills and knowledge to participate in the environment. Low-threshold activities require inexpensive or free materials and are easy to start with minimal prior knowledge. High threshold activities might include expensive equipment or materials, and a set of skills or knowledge that must be mastered before being able to participate. For example, Robotics Clubs can be high threshold activities because they require costly materials (not to mention educators with sophisticated know how), and students that understand basics of circuitry and tool use. Much of the work that teachers do is to find creative ways to lower the thresholds of challenging activities so more of their students can successfully participate in them. Resnick's work showed how specially designed computer languages could get students started in the sophisticated world of software engineering by lowering the threshold for participation in coding activity. Similarly, the Lego Mindstorms kits lowered the threshold of participation for robotics clubs by using familiar materials (Legos and pre-built controllers and motors) and published curricula for teachers to use.

Mancala Clubs are low-threshold environments because the materials to run a club are inexpensive (mancala boards made from egg cartons or bought at thrift stores, stones from nature or glass beads from the dollar store, notepads and a writing surface like a pad of poster paper), and the game rules themselves are very easy to learn with only minimal counting skills and no literacy skills needed.

Walls: The boundaries and rules that define what is and isn't acceptable or included in the learning environment. All learning environments and the activities that take place in them have boundaries that define what is and isn't in the space. Activities with narrow "walls" have very limited ranges of what is acceptable and what is considered part of the activity. A chess club with students only participating in practice games has narrower walls than a chess club where students can play practice games, play modified games, self-study opening moves or read about chess. A chess club has narrower walls than a board games club where many games might be played. Walls aren't necessarily restrictive in a harmful way- students who love chess and long to master it would prefer the chess club to the wider-walled board games club. Walls also determine what success looks like. For example, in the narrow-walled chess club that only uses practice games, a student playing a modified chess variant or writing a chess poem would not be considered successful as they are "wasting time" by not doing the proscribed activity, but that same student in the wide-walled chess club would be considered highly successful. There is a tricky balance in constructing these walls. If you construct your walls too narrowly for your students needs and interests, don't be surprised if they start breaking some of these walls to better meet their needs! If the walls are too wide, students may not be sure what to do and may not have the structure they need to feel successful.

Our Mancala Clubs are designed to be wide-walled spaces where students choose from a range of activities and challenges each day, ranging from playing just for fun to tackling new or ongoing challenges like determining the Ultimate First Turn (LINK), designing and play testing their own mancala games, or programming a Mancala Bot (LINK). Our Mancala Clubs have activity centers (a practice borrowed from early learning) and students are able to self-select where they go play and what challenges they take. We helped define the walls by making these choices in the space, but also by creating a challenge chart (LINK) students could track their explorations on. We also made the choice to widen the walls of our club when we saw students changing how they used notation. When students changed the notation system itself so they could better solve challenges, rather than correcting them or having them sole challenges "our way," we asked questions and encouraged their innovations.

Ceilings: The upper limits of the activity. Activities can have low or high ceilings based on their scope or how far you can go before exhausting what is possible. Activities with narrow scope (like a worksheet of arithmetic, or a list of spelling words to memorize) have a lower ceiling than activities that allow more deep and open-ended engagement such as solving real-life problems or writing a story. Games have ceilings based on their strategic complexity. Tic Tac Toe has a lower ceiling than chess, for example. A teacher quizzing students or asking them to solve problems where the solution and the process are known ahead of time are lower ceiling practices than the same teacher asking more open-ended questions or posting questions they don't know the answer to. Ceilings also refer to the degree to which the activities learners are engaged in connect to deeper and more sophisticated activity- are the learners engaged in activities that are aligned with what professionals or experts do in that activity?

Mancala as a game family has a very high ceiling, with over 400 known rule variations played all over the world, and established competitive play organizations for at least two of those rule sets. Mancala Club is a high-ceiling learning environment in that we pose challenges that we the educators often don't know the answers to, and we work with students to help them uncover new solutions to those challenges. One example is the Ultimate First Turn challenge where students work together to find the best combination of moves for their first turn. This is a challenging combinatorics problem that students can spend weeks on. We are also a high-ceiling environment in the way that we pose challenges that align with practices that professionals use. We use practices game design professionals use (design your own Mancala Game), or that software engineers use (program a mancala bot). Learning as many versions of the game as possible also reflects what game anthropologists do.

Focus on Why They Learn: Harnessing existing motivation for engagement.

We organize activities in Mancala Club according to research done on motivations for game play found by Bartle (1996) who identified 4 motivations for players: Socialization, Competition, Exploration and Achievement. While Bartle's research was done on players of online games, we recognized that children in a Mancala club might also play Mancala for many different reasons. Instead of only organizing our stations based on what content we thought necessary for Mancala mastery, we organized our activity stations based on these 4 motivational constructs, and located skills and challenges in these stations. Each day there was a place for students who loved to compete to play, a place for students who wanted to achieve goals outside competition, a place for students to explore new rule sets or create their own, and last, but not least, a relaxed social space where students could enjoy each other's company and just play for fun. Over the years we've found this motivation centered structure to be very effective in maintaining positive and productive student engagement. This means we spend more time in our club playing and learning than redirecting dangerous or unkind behaviors. When we design according to WHY students are there, they are more eager to engage in WHAT we want them to because their own WHY and WHAT align.

Feelings First: It is sort of funny that this is last on the list, but this design principle runs throughout the club's other designs and as such takes a bit longer to describe. Research on classroom climate and the impact of emotions on learning demonstrate that the emotional climate of the space and the quality of adult-child interactions are foundational to successful learning. Here are ways that we create a positive emotional and relationship-centered climate:

Mancala Club Charter: Our first session of every club includes creating an emotional literacy charter, a tool from the RULER Approach social and emotional learning curriculum. Our Mancala Club Charters are student generated declarations of how they want to feel in our club, what kinds of things they will do to help one another have those feelings, and what they can do when there is a problem. A charter like this is part of our walls that guide our behavior in the club, but different from typical class rules like "no running" or "no yelling." Those kinds of boundaries are set by adults in the space and follow the relevant expectations children experience in the school day. The charter gives us positive expectations and some starting strategies for resolving the typical kinds of problems that take place in a game club like winning and losing gracefully, cheating vs. mistakes, and feeling included. The charter then functions as a living document that we can edit and improve over the course of the 8 or so weeks of the session.

Competition is a social skill! Many educators shy away from competition and competitive structures because competition often distracts students from the learning opportunities present in an activity. While we did create some cooperative challenges, we also kept competition as a key experience in the club because rather than treating competition as a structure, we treat it as a social skill to learn. We all need opportunities to practice managing disappointment and being empathetic to one another and competition in a board game is a nice, low risk context to develop those skills. In our charters we would explicitly ask students how they want to feel winning or losing, and students always came up with ways of competing positively, using terms like "be a good sport," or "say good game and shake hands." One student taught us a phrase she learned in chess club "Win or learn!" meaning that if you win, that's fun, but if you lose that's also fun because you can learn new strategies and skills from your opponent. Competition handled poorly is toxic, but handled skillfully competition is a lot of fun!

Education is rooted in relationships: We draw on the work of educator Loris Mallaguzzi who recognized that learning is rooted in relationships, so we intentionally created structures that would foster positive relationships among all the participants, between students, between students and teachers, between families and students, and between families and teachers. We made sure to send boards home with children so they could play Mancala with their families and asked about how playing at home went. We also invited parents to come in and play and encouraged families to play in their home language if they wanted. Parents and grandparents who grew up playing different versions of Mancala felt inspired to share their ways that they played and these rule sets became part of our club's repertoire. Creating an environment that welcomes families with their children provided our learning community with not just the gifts our students brought with them, but what their parents could also share as well. Families also benefitted as they strengthened their bonds through play and inquiry.

These design principles shaped all the activities you will find here on and we hope you will experiment with them yourself and see what is possible. Below are two videos about our design principles and the structure of Mancala Club so you can see it in action.

Have fun and find the learning!

John Benner

David Phelps

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