Why D&D is great for gifted kids
Last summer I conducted a day camp for gifted fourth- and fifth-graders. The camp was advertised as an adventure through Greek mythology, but it wasn’t like the Greek mythology on which most elementary school students are raised. My day camp was Dungeons and Dragons in ancient Greece, an expansion of the Dungeons and Dragons “empire” in the middle school where I teach. I regularly hold games for up to 30 students in two separate club periods. My students think the game is fun; I know it’s an invaluable skill-building resource.
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D for short) is, in fact, becoming popular as a teaching tool thanks to its low-tech, high-imagination, differentiated, cross-disciplinary, social-skill developing approach to problem-solving. Not coincidentally, it also dovetails with Duke TIP’s curricular interest in cracking mysteries (check out the eInvestigators program). D&D makes education come alive for our gifted youth, sparking their curiosity, encouraging them to go deeper: in other words, it fosters intrinsic motivation, the pedagogical Holy Grail.
What’s more, it’s not that difficult to use D&D—or its principles—with your students.
Have you used D&D with your students? Share with us below!
D&D: what it is, and what it does
Many already know this fantasy role-playing game, an activity where you take on a character and, with others who are also taking on personas, act together in an improvisational storytelling space. A referee (or “Dungeon Master”), with the help of rules governed by dice rolls, guides you through this choose-it-yourself adventure.
For a quick intro to a D&D game in action, you might want to take a look at a clip from the first episode (beginning at 1:54 and ending around 3:10) of the wildly popular Stranger Things Netflix series, which uses D&D as a metaphor for its continuing plot. Note that there is some PG-13 language in it.
D&D’s appeal lies in its ability to transport players into a space where success is achieved with the proper combination of creative thinking, problem solving, and teamwork (the Stranger Things boys play for 10 hours straight!). Instead of testing the high-adrenaline, fight-or-flight skills of a video game, D&D instead encourages players to slow down, fire up their imaginations, and consider the whole context of the adventure story they are creating.
In other words, D&D is not just about killing as quickly (and as implausibly, with as many implausible weapons—see the popular video game Fortnite) as possible. It is really about standing in someone else’s shoes in another place and time. And that’s where much of the academic (and social-emotional) value of D&D lies.
What D&D teaches gifted youth
D&D develops the following key academic and social-emotional skills in gifted students:
- Creativity. Players are encouraged to create a mental portrait of their character and a sense of what that character would do in certain situations. The character’s backstory—his or her upbringing, social background, and past experiences are all created and then used to make decisions that are consistent with who the character is. In my Greek Mythology D&D game, all characters have a “defining childhood moment” that is played individually, player to referee, to get a richer sense of that character’s ethos and motivations. (In my Greek mythology camp, for example, one of the players was carried off by a giant eagle to its nest on a rocky cliff and had to climb down the cliff and swim to shore! Forever after she was considered a celebrity in her own town, which gave her the confidence to become an adventurer.)
- Problem-solving. The group of players (also known as “the party”) are faced with multiple scenarios, both small and large, where they must determine what course of action is to be taken. A small situation may involve a locked door that needs to be opened without a key; a big one, perhaps that a nobleman has hired the party to do a job and has double-crossed them. Analysis, evaluation, and synthesis skills are constantly in play.
- Calculation. The roles for the game are dependent on numbers and probability of success. Players need to practice calculation of basic math facts (especially percentages) and determine where they are more or less likely to succeed. No computers or calculators are used—that would be much too slow. Instead, students soon learn to do calculations in their head quickly.
- Teamwork. Players are given characters on purpose with a diverse range of talents and powers. The group must identify which characters do well in which situations, and rely on each other to achieve success.
- Risk-taking and decision-making. Players decide through calculation and evaluation of each other’s gifts what actions are worth taking based on the probability of success. This part of the game is highly beneficial for gifted students who are paralyzed by the desire for perfection. In high-risk situations, often an outcome cannot be predetermined and one must “go with one’s gut.”
- Empathy. This is an extremely important aspect of the game. Because D&D often involves danger, misfortune, wounds, and sometimes even the death of a character, the stakes can be quite high in the real world for players’ self-esteem and friendships. The referee/teacher has a perfect moment to showcase the benefits of other-centered action that ends up strengthening the bonds of the players themselves. Healing is a case in point: some characters have the magical ability to heal wounds and cure diseases. Players quickly understand that compassion for the hurt and sick becomes a helpful practice for the success of the whole party, and gratitude for each other grows as healing is dispensed and reciprocal favors result from that first act of mercy.
- Moral choice. Exploring moral choices is extremely important for middle school and high school students, whose executive functioning is still developing. This is a more abstract skill than empathy, because it mostly involves players’ actions vis-a-vis the law or social norms, rather than relationships amongst themselves. A party might, for example, find a set of jewels that they discover is stolen. What are the advantages and disadvantages of “fencing” the jewels on the black market as opposed to returning them to their rightful owners? Now and then, I might even allow players to play out poor choices in a sidebar “bizarro universe” where they get to see the consequences of their actions as if they had chosen them in the real game. One of my favorites was where a student’s character tried to rob a bank and found that it’s not so easy to get by half a dozen guards armed with heavy crossbows.
- Growth mindset. Because D&D is a game where not every moment guarantees fairy-tale happily-ever-afters, students can become frustrated at their lack of success. A spate of bad luck with dice rolls, for example, reduced one of my 5th grade campers last year to tears. How can I, as teacher and referee, help to build resilience in students and a desire to try, fail, and continue to be optimistic? Since I am in control of what happens in the game, I can adjust the challenges the players face–to ratchet up the pressure when confidence is high, and to give a little grace and breathing space when it isn’t. Truly, the best moment in the game is at the end of a fight or challenge when players are recounting what happened and laughter breaks out over a momentary failure. “Remember when your magic missile flew over the goblin’s head and hit me?” someone will say. “And then the goblin dropped his sword and I picked it up and hit him with it!” Laughter. Fun. Skill-building.
In a way, D&D is like a mental ropes course or team-building exercise, with the non-trivial bonus of a significant upload of relevant content. In my Greek Mythology D&D game, students learn about and use facts about the geography, socio-cultural norms, history, religion, and story culture of ancient Greece.
There is a further bonus for D&D with gifted students: natural differentiation. First, talent differentiation happens in a D&D game because, as in a ropes course, the students themselves bring different strengths to the scenario, and they will find their level of participation based on those strengths.
But in D&D (and not in ropes courses), there is another layer of differentiation: because the fictional personas the students assume have different gifts and talents, they will be needed and called on as befits those talents. No one in a D&D game has to sit quietly while other, more “alpha” players monopolize the action. If the characters are created correctly, everyone will have their appropriate moments of decision, action, and glory.
At this point, if you are a high-level D&D player-teacher, you might want to jump into a general overview of the cross-disciplinary potential of D&D in the classroom: for this type of reader, check out the excellent Teaching with DnD website, which shows the possibilities particularly for English and Math.
Getting Started with Gifted Students
For the Greek mythology camp, the game rules I used are published under the title Mazes and Minotaurs, which is one of the original role-playing games invented. Fortunately, all of the rules and a lot of the resources can be downloaded as PDFs free online—including a completely keyed adventure that saves the referee/teacher from having to “make up” a completely new scenario.
Free also means that the potential referee/teacher can explore a D&D-type game without shelling out the (potentially) hundreds of dollars necessary to bone up on the name-brand game.
Mazes and Minotaurs is also user-friendly in its approach to the game. Character creation is handled seamlessly in the first 20 pages or so of the player’s handbook; the rules themselves are straightforward and, when there is doubt about how to play a certain situation, the rules encourage referee (and player) improvisation. Numerous websites online also digest and discuss the rules so that the referee does not have to read all the books cover to cover.
(One caveat: there is some odd heroic nudity among the illustrations of the game, though the creators mostly attempted to cover up what younger students are not used to seeing. You might want to curate what you actually hand out to students.)
Apply D&D Principles to Your Gifted Curriculum
Even if you cannot spend the time and energy to do a D&D unit in your classroom, the principles of D&D can inform the rest of your teaching. As you plan, you might want to think of places in your curriculum where you can teach your material so that it allows students to enter role-play situations and solve problems or face challenges that require a team approach.
The eInvestigators courses at Duke TIP provide an excellent example for this type of curriculum. Also check out my role-playing activities at “How (Ancient) Greek Are You? Time-Traveling Role Plays.”
A final note: I find that viewing “Stranger Things” with a view to how the “party” of kids, the mother (Winona Ryder), and the chief of police (David Harbour) deal with problems involving the “Down Under” (parallel world) to be a particularly instructive way of imagining a teamwork-oriented curriculum. And you’re in luck. There are three seasons of Stranger Things now available on Netflix.