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Using 'Escape the Room!' games with students in the classroom

Have you tried...?

Overview: What is an "Escape Room"?

An escape room is, according to Wikipedia, "a physical adventure game in which players solve a series of puzzles using clues, hints and strategy to complete the objectives at hand. Players are given a set time limit to unveil the secret plot which is hidden within the rooms". They are increasingly popular as team-building exercises as well as a fun leisure activity.

In the classroom, an "Escape the Room" format can involve students working together, against the clock, to solve a series of puzzles using existing and fresh knowledge from their studies and from clues and sources which have been left around the room. They can be great for introducing a fresh topic, consolidating existing knowledge and introducing fresh learning into the classroom in a fresh and engaging way.

What is the best format for making them work in a classroom setting?

Although escape rooms have great potential for creating memorable learning experiences in the classroom, they can easily become a time-consuming gimmick where plenty of fun is had but very little genuine learning is taking place. So the challenge I set myself was to develop an easily replicable format for setting up such activities which allows teachers to set them up quickly, and which simultaneously keeps genuine subject mastery at the heart of the excitement.

The approach I adopt is summarised as follows and works well in a lesson lasting 45-60 minutes.

Step 1: The essential steps - pre-class preparation
  1. Design an engaging scenario based on the topic explaining why they need to "Escape the Room".
  2. Construct a timeline of ten events relating to the topic. Each of these will be given out, in date order, each time a mission is completed.
  3. Decide what the "final mission" entails that will enable them to "escape". This will be provided to them as a final reward along with the final piece of the timeline. For example, the final mission might be to open the combiniation lock around the door handle to the room; this might be a four-digit date, and the the "final clue" given along with the last piece of the timeline might simply read "The fourth event in your completed timeline provides the key to escape!"
  4. Gather a series of sources - written accounts, images, props and artefacts - relating to the topic in question. You could also put together some "random trivia" slips which could be mixed with these sources if you wish.
  5. Produce ten "missions" (questions / tasks) requiring use of some of these sources and write these on separate 'mission slips'. These missions could be named after key individuals and events ("Mission Roosevelt", "Mission Fascism" and so on) which might later be researched.
  6. Hide the mission slips EITHER by placing them in unusual places around the room (remember to keep a note of where they are!) AND / OR by obfuscating them (e.g. by writing them in a substitution cypher, converting them in to a QR code, or writing them on a laminated surface using a UV pen so that a special torch is needed to read them).
  7. Prepare a few more miscellaneous "hint" questions which can be answered through reference to the sources in the room. If students are getting stuck at finding or completing a mission, you can give them one of these questions and reward a correct answer with a hint to keep things moving.
  8. Spread the various sources all over the room, along with various other miscellaneous sources to add further interest (and have appropriate music playing).

Step 2: Conducting the Activity


Useful props for your Escape Room scenarios

 lock torch bike hasp  
ORIA Combination Lock, 4 Digit Combination Padlock - 2 Packlink  Findway 5 UV Ultra Violet Blacklight 9 LED Flashlight Torch Light Outdoorslink  Bicycle 5 Letter Combination Lock Password Sturdy Security Padlock-Blacklink  Brady Steel Lockout Hasp With Tab, 1" Inside Jaw Diameterlink   
pens wheel box clock  
Set of 3 Invisible UV Blacklight Ink Marker Blue/Red/Yellow Mexican Army Cipher Disks - Historical, Powerful, Useful Encryption Machine by Creative Crafthouselink  Stalwart 75-005 Metal Storage Lock Box, 12"link  Embassy JB4985 Wall Clock With Hidden Safelink   


What follows is a detailed case study, with supporting resources, which will hopefully inspire you to try one out for yourself!

Escape Room Case Study / Download: "Operation Bletchley, 1945"

The scenario

"It is 1945. Nazi Germany is on the verge of defeat after being invaded by the Russian forces from the East, and Allied forces from the West. You are a group of top-secret codebreakers at Bletchley Park, England. Thanks to you the Enigma codes of the Nazi high command were broken. However, our celebrations have been cut short because we have received an anonymous phone call that a nuclear bomb has been planted in our operations room by an enemy spy who has locked all escape routes. The caller is a double agent who was pretending to help this spy with their evil work. He is keen to help you escape but had to hide clues in the room so as not to blow his own cover. The bomb is locked in a suitcase in the centre of the room. Your job is to crack the code of the lock so you can open the case and defuse the bomb. It has been placed on a timer, leaving you only 45 minutes"

Pre-class preparation

Conducting the lesson

Students are then encouraged to engineer their escape by finding mission slips, completing the tasks and reconstructing the timeline in the manner described above.

From this point the activity should pretty much run itself - students will start hunting around the room trying to find missions, then completing them, and slowly building up the timeline. As the teacher, all you need to do is have your own copy of the mission slips printed onto a sheet so you can tick off which ones have been located, and which ones have been completed. What I find is that for the first few minutes they find very little and rummage around; then they find/solve a sequence of missions; then they hit a brick wall - at which point the hint cards come into play.

Other points to note:


Students should be asked to reflect on the activity with the following sorts of questions:

Follow-up Learning

In the following lessons, students are provided with the timeline in worksheet format. They develop this with notes from two videos ("Britain Alone" and "The Road to Berlin") and images from a web search. They will then use their completed work to choose one character, event or theme to research further: "Find out three interesting facts about your topic in relation to World War Two (1939-45). Be prepared to share your findings with the class. Your teacher may, for example, conduct a 'Tell us something we don’t know' feedback session to identify who has conducted the most interesting research. Alternatively your teacher may ask you to produce a classroom exhibition by collating the research of all members of the class"

Appendix [1] Some suggested mission formats

Idea Example
A simple factual question that can be answered through reference to one of the sources in the room. What, according to the pamphlet, is the magazine of the Women’s Land Army called?
Take an A4 overlay and place it over a key text or image. Circle off the relelvant detail with a transparency marker. Then write a question onto the transparency, the answer to which can be found be overlaying the transparency onto the relevant source. Somwehere in the room is a detailed account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Overlay this transparency onto it to obtain the name of the Russian ambassador who secretly met with Bobby Kennedy at the height of the crisis and find out exactly what he is quoted as saying.
Provide the images of four people relating to the topic, along with some useful biographical details about their historical significance. Students have to name each one of them using the sources around the room to help them. "Name the following people whose faces are shown on this sheet of paper, using the information provided about each one underneath to help you"
Cut up an image / poster into pieces and put these around the room. Students have to reconstruct the image and provide the caption that's upon it. "Reconstruct the poster of World War Two fighter pilots from the Battle of Britain. What does Churchill have to say about them?"
Provide a lattitude and longitude co-ordinate with a question mark next to it. Students use an atlas to determine the city it matches and must outline its significance to the topic to proceed. 20.1400 > N
75.2129 > W
Provide a phone number with missing digits. Give students a series of multiple choice questions. Each of the possible answers for each question has a number alongside it. Identifying the correct answers therefore provides the missing digits for the phone number, which has to be dialled (you'll need to use your phone number for this one).
Create a blank table on a sheet of paper, with a caption in each cell and a space for an image. Students have to find the missing images, hidden around the room, and put them into the correct spots.

Appendix [2] Some suggested ways of "hiding" missions

Encode the mission using a substitution cypher (e.g. using http://www.dcode.fr/monoalphabetic-substitution). Subtract 1940 from the year that World War Two ended. Use this number to crack this simple substitution cipher and answer this question to complete your mission:
Encode the mission using a Mexican Code Wheel cypher (e.g. using http://www.dcode.fr/mexican-army-cipher-wheel) - I use this to add extra complexity to the final mission, for example. You can purchase a Mexican code wheel here (or make one out of paper). Final mission: The combination for the lock can be obtained by decoding the following message. The key to this code will be revealed by the FINAL EVENT in the completed timeline: 29294190763788572551
Encode the mission using written using a UV pen onto a laminated surface. This can only be read using a UV torch. As an added twist, hide the batteries for this in different parts of the room. (any question, written in UV pen on an A4 transparency)
Place the mission in a locked box with the name of the mission prominently written on it. Hide the key somewhere in the room.  
Provide a USB key along with the mission. Opening the contents of the key is necessary to complete the mission. On this USB key is a video. Find a way to watch it and answer the following question...
Have a question which needs to be answered by watching a YouTube video, which is provided in the form of a QR code which students then have to scan and watch with their phone.
Tape the mission instruction to the ceiling (blank side of the paper facing down to make it more difficult to spot). Hint: You will have to look upwards to find your mission.
Write the mission onto a laminated surface using a UV pen. Students have to use a torch (the batteries for which could be taken out and hidden around the room for an added challenge). Students love this one. Hint: You will have to be quite *bright* to complete this mission.
Hide mission slips in security boxes with combination locks. The correct code corresponds to a date hinted at in a cryptic clue in the room. Hint: The date of Barbarossa will unlock your mission.
Stick the mission onto a part of a globe, then spin it around so it’s facing the wall. Hint: The location of your mission is on the other side of the planet: Singapore, a British colony which fell to the Japanese in 1942.
Between the pages of a book. Note how the hint to the right demands they use an index to find it. Hint: The location of your mission can be found at the spot of Tunzelmann’s very last reference to Batista in her book "Red Heat".
Under a plant pot. Hint: Your mission is planted somewhere rather obvious.


Appendix [3] Other "Escape the Room" lessons

I have so far produced a couple of other "Escape the Room" scenarios for my classes, outlined below. I plan to add more of these in due course.

Title Theme Scenario  

Introduction to Historiography


"What a chaotic summer!! While purging the Social Science offices to make space for new teachers, ALL of the important resources to explain what is actually true in history somehow got scrambled, lost or thrown away. Your teacher has been so stressed and over-whelmed by the whole situation she has collapsed in a fit of despair. It is up to you fledgling historians to save the universe by restoring order and determining -What is, who is and where is the TRUTH???"


Produced and shared by Stephanie Howie, Kingston Collegiate, Head of Social Sciences, Humanities and Business

Mission Galileo

(subscribers only)


"It is 1610. the Renaissance ('Rebirth') of arts and sciences has transformed Europe. You are students of the great scientist galileo in Padua, Italy. You have all been put in jail by the church for insisting that the earth goes round the sun! You will all taken away to be executed in 45 minutes - unless you can find the key to escape! The location of the key is provided in the coded message in the middle of the room".

Images | PowerPoint Starter | Missions

Mission Havana

(subscribers only)

Rise of Castro

"You are American business people from the United Fruit Company, placed under house arrest by the new Castro regime due to your close ties to Batista. You have managed to ply the guard with rum and he has passed out. But you have only one hour to find a way to escape before he wakes up and takes his revenge".

Missions | Documents/Images

Russel Tarr (@russeltarr / @activehistory).


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