“Gameworks” An Innovative Approach to Engage Youth-at-Risk in Learning

By Madelaine Currelly

One of the most difficult elements of any learning intervention is achieving engagement from participants. With some populations it is extremely difficult and the desired learning outcome can be derailed quite easily. Youth-at-risk represents an example of a population that unless engagement is obtained right away, the likelihood of reaching the goal is lessened . In an effort to increase positive outcomes, we have implemented “Gameworks,” an unusual but effective technique for obtaining participation from our youth.


Introducing “Gameworks”


“Gameworks,” is a tool that assists in engaging youth to participate in various activities designed to aid their overall development. These include

  • gaining a sense of purpose

  • making appropriate social contacts

  • identifying a life or career direction

  • developing employability skills

  • setting goals and engaging in follow up actions

  • learning perseverance and experience its benefits

  • learning to conduct research

  • visualizing a better future

  • acquiring appropriate social and workplace skills

  • developing skills to succeed in typical school settings

  • using their creativity in positive ways

  • thinking critically

  • making decisions and experiencing direct consequences.

These activities are essential to help at-risk youth learn to become responsible adults and contributing members of society.

The strength of the “Gameworks” approach is that it provides structure throughout the chosen intervention. Structure is often interpreted as resembling a traditional classroom setting which is frequently the reason why youth-at-risk don’t succeed. However, the “Gameworks” concept allows participants to learn without actually feeling like they are learning – and this is done in the context of a board game.


Learning Goals and Outcomes


“Gameworks” is an activity where participants are divided into teams and are given the responsibility of building a board game from conception to final packaging. Board game materials are provided for each team. Each team works towards developing their board games, first to be played in groups and then to post online so that family and friends can rate the final product. The games are played according to rules developed by the participants. Once played, they assess the validity of the rules and process of the game.

“Gameworks” encourages participants to exercise and utilize their creativity while working towards real life goals in a collaborative environment. While building the board game, participants must use critical thinking skills, assessment, analysis and entrepreneurial skills. During the building of the board game, team members will experience first-hand how cooperation is essential to completing the project. If participants have trouble getting along with other team members, they soon realize that in order to complete the project they have to create ways to manage the process by resolving the conflict.

The “Gameworks” process also allows participants to understand the importance of individual and group needs. Students quickly learn that individual needs are not more important than team needs, thus nicely paralleling the real world of work. “Gameworks” allows participants to realize that their needs can be met with the help of others. This ultimately highlights the importance of support mechanisms that are experienced through team dynamics. The act of building a board game with a common goal demonstrates that the collective good of the team outweighs individual needs and concerns. While collaboratively designing the board game, participants practice negotiation, research, and experience the pitfalls and successes of the choices they have made.

“Gameworks” also helps bring to the surface the skills each participant has to offer the team. They must identify their strengths to help complete the project while developing a sense of resiliency by examining how they deal with new situations. The structured environment allows facilitators of the “Gameworks” process to help participants experience “real” situations and then debrief them afterwards. This indirect teaching method is powerful in that participants learn by doing and may not realize that they have learned something about themselves and real world issues without feeling tasked because of the fun they have building the board games.

The “Gameworks” process produce board games that must incorporate a theme the intervention is addressing. The purpose of incorporating a theme into the board game is to highlight the intervention objectives. Within the broad theme, sub-themes would be selected such as career exploration, ecology, literacy, parenting skills, biology, finance and banking, job maintenance, social networking, and any other area of interest. This works by getting the participants to research the themes more deeply and incorporating them into the concept of the game. This creates a stronger learning experience and engages them deeply in the learning process-

they actually teach themselves the content of the theme. The understanding of important concepts comes through while they are acquiring knowledge of topics related to the curriculum as well as designing the board game.


Our Youth-at-Risk Project


Our groups have ranged in age from 16-28 years. In one of our groups, the topic was career paths and job search relating to various employment fields. The youth not only researched all the information needed to build the board game, but also developed the game concept, rules, game cards, and designed the game board, tokens and cards. The group developed the board game concept around a business model and had to incorporate marketing, advertising, and financial analysis into the developing business plan. In this case, the targeted audience was Grade 7 and 8 students and the youth had the opportunity to present their completed games to the class to get feedback on what they had created. As a result, the youth experienced immediate feedback and felt a great sense of accomplishment when they realize their games were relevant to and well received by their audience.


Instructions for Conducting “Gameworks”


The “Gameworks” approach involved creating a ‘Game Board Contest’ for the group and uploading pictures, instructions, game concept and other relevant information to the www.goratemygame.com. At the website, everyone including the youth, their families and the end users of the games can rate each of the games. The website allows the facilitator to choose how many winners there are for the contest created. Part of the participants marketing plan include encouraging visitors to come to the site to rate their game.



Participants’ Testimonies


Youth-at-risk rarely offer positive feedback about a new learning experience,but “Gameworks” was the exception! The following represent a few of the quotes from participants:

“I loved designing the board and building the cards”

“I am way more patient now because I realize everyone works differently”

“I learned to deal with conflict in a professional manner”

“Leaning about careers I had never known about was the most fun”

“I realize how important it is to manage my time as a part of the group”

“I learned new research skills and putting things in my own way rather than copying things from the internet”

“I realize all the skills you need to get a job”

‘I never knew how important it was to pick good high school credits. It really affects your future decisions”

“I have never known what it feels like to do any work, I have never felt so good about myself; this is the best thing that has ever happened to me”

“This program was awesome; it gave me opportunities to network with new people”

“I learned about how to run a small business and I never knew you could do that through a game.”




Building a board game allowed participants to experience first-hand the skills required to be successful in the 21st century job market. By requiring participants to incorporate the theme of career development with other concepts as they develop their games, they learned in a creative, engaging way. This approach can be used not only with the youth-at-risk population but with others as well. The small investment required makes it easily accessible to all types of programs. Ultimately, the impact is significant.

Madelaine CurrellyMadelaine Currelly is currently the CEO of the Community Training and Development Centre (CTDC) a not-for-profit, affiliated with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (KPRDSB) in Canada. Madelaine is the author of “Song of the Soul” a book of children’s social development activities for use by parents and caregivers. She also co-authored “Movabilty” a book of physical activities for pre-school children. If you would like more information please contact Madelaine_Currelly@kprdsb.ca

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alease copelin   on Wednesday 12/01/2010 at 10:23 PM

I was able to see this innovative strategy at the career development conference this summer. A great idea that involves students in games (non-threatening) and introduces life skills!

Harvey Hoyo   on Tuesday 01/11/2011 at 07:26 PM

Sounds like an excellent way to encourage curricular engagement with a medium that most kids can relate too. It becomes a question of effective mentoring/monitoring so the game is guided by the established criteria.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.