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Untold Play

Escape Rooms as Learning Experiences - Part 1 – An Introduction to Learning Escape Rooms

Escape Rooms as Learning Experiences - Part 1 – An Introduction to Learning Escape Rooms

by Terry Pearce

2 months ago


For over a decade, Escape Rooms have grown in popularity every year – longer if we more loosely include puzzle experiences that don’t use the name. Online Escape Rooms filled a niche during the pandemic, as people searched for interesting and different things to do from their homes.

Behind the obvious draw of Escape Rooms for leisure, there’s also a boom in Escape Rooms for teambuilding and learning, especially online. Teachers have been creating educational escape rooms for years, but corporate L&D is catching on, including companies like Microsoft, Deloitte and Starbucks.

I’ve recently created Escape Rooms for learning with the Trainer Talk and L&D Shakers communities, and explored the possibilities with a huge range of L&D professionals. I wanted to share some of the fruits of those creations and conversations into an article. It got so big, it’s now a series of four articles. 

In this series, we’ll explore the key steps and ideas in creating or commissioning Escape Rooms for learning. First up: what exactly is a Learning Escape Room, why would you use one, and how would you get started?

In Escape Rooms, your job is to solve puzzles and escape

Most Escape Rooms are rooms filled with a series or collection of puzzles. The job of the players is to solve them and escape. Usually, each puzzle provides a key or code that opens a lock, with smaller locks leading to a final lock. Virtual Escape Rooms often mimic this set-up, implementing locks and puzzles online.

The puzzles often test teamwork and problem-solving skills. Many involve sifting through info from a given source or scenario, which often reinforce the genre or setting – for example sci-fi or detective mysteries. 

This is easy to adapt as an educator or learning professional – you can theme puzzles around topics you want the players to explore and learn about. Being told the history of the organisation doesn’t scream ‘excitement’, but sifting through it to unlock a challenging puzzle may get more traction. 

But players don’t have to escape (and you don’t need a room)

Although we’ll talk about Learning Escape Rooms, it’s worth keeping in mind that the definition can be pretty flexible. Some ‘Escape Rooms’ are not about escaping – the aim could be to solve a mystery, find a lost item, or uncover a secret. And the setting doesn’t need to be a room – virtual or otherwise. It could be business premises, a forest, or even the internet.

Escape Rooms developed the way they did because it made sense to put people in a room, and escaping the room was a convenient challenge. But the core of the idea is a set of clues, puzzles and tasks, leading to a final goal within a timeframe. Escape the Boom and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes are examples of ‘Escape Rooms’ that aren’t rooms at all.  

Escape Rooms help learners share their learning experience

Make learners into protagonists instead of spectators, and they’ll learn more, enjoy the experience more, and retain and use what they learn better. But the power of escape rooms for learning goes further.

Scott Nicholson and Liz Cable, in the book Unlocking the Potential of Puzzle-Based Learning, say that escape games in education are powerful because they encourage players to vocalise their thinking, and share the explorations of a topic. When learners cooperate to solve puzzles, they learn from each other as they go, laying their process bare and helping each other to streamline it and learn from mistakes and successes.

This sharing and speaking up and working in the open also facilitates great debriefs. Facilitators can talk about what went well and what didn’t from observations, and learners can comment on what they did, what others did, how they communicated, and more. 

Escape Rooms can introduce, cover or review learning topics

There are three key moments where Escape Rooms are used in learning:

  • To introduce the ideas in a topic without expecting deeper learning
  • To explore topics in more depth, allowing substantive learning about the topic
  • To review a topic once it’s been covered some other way

This is apart from any use of Escape Rooms as topic-agnostic experiences where the focus is on team-building, or on the raw generalised skills they often use such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving.

They may work best of all when introducing the ideas in a topic. In this case, the intertwining of the puzzles and the learning content doesn’t need to be very deep. The experience can flexibly focus on puzzles being exciting and challenging, so long as the new topics are included in a way that starts learners thinking about them.

More in-depth exploration of topics can be difficult, because learners can sometimes focus on learning the minimum they need to solve a puzzle, before rushing to the next. However, with careful design, this can be addressed. Escape Room designers can de-emphasise the time/competitive element. They can iron out short-cuts, forcing focus on the learning concepts. And they can build in an effective debrief that cements the learning topics.

Escape Rooms can be very effective for reviewing or assessing knowledge, because the puzzles themselves can require the knowledge being tested. However, because of the team element to most Escape Rooms, they’re best used for more informal assessments – ways to surface any need for further time, rather than grading or formally assessing somebody’s knowledge. 

You can get more inspiration by checking out more examples

You might be somebody who’s looking to design a learning Escape Room, or commission one, or just somebody who’s interested in exploring more about what they can do. In any of those cases, I’d say one of the best ways to get a broader perspective on what’s possible is to broaden your horizons on what’s out there.

Play commercial ‘fun’ Escape Rooms, online and in-person. Play learning or teambuilding focused ones like those at Gather or Gaminar (where one of my own, ‘Escape the Grey’ will soon be featured as an example of what’s possible). Play video games that do some of the same things as Escape Rooms, like The Room series, The Witness or Myst

Look around for puzzles and collections of puzzles, like those of Martin Gardner or Scott Kim. Watch puzzle-based shows like the classic The Crystal Maze. Check out some of the things that are happening in interactive theatre. 

Those of these that aren’t in themselves learning-focused can be adapted. Approach them asking questions like, how would it be if I… 

  • switched the information basis of this puzzle to something relevant?
  • moved this to a relevant setting or context?
  • selected the most relevant part of this and thought about how to combine it with information from my topic?

Escape Rooms can be created on more platforms than you can imagine

We’ve already mentioned Gather and Gaminar as places you can create and experience Escape Rooms. At the simple end of things, you can hack Google Forms by using it to give info, pose puzzles and validate responses. You can create a more sophisticated variant of this idea with more complex form tools like Typeform.

There are lots of other approaches out there. E-learning platforms like Articulate. Platforms intended for interactive presentations like Thinglink and Genially. Interactive scenario platforms like Mazetec. You can of course create physical ones, or ones where you give the puzzles any way you like, asking learners to work together on Zoom and tell you when they think they have the answer.

Each format or platform has advantages and disadvantages, or what is often called affordances. Whichever allows you to do the things that your Escape Room needs is the right one for you.   

Next up: theme, narrative and structure

I hope this article has built up your appetite for Escape Rooms for learning. There’s plenty more to explore in the rest of the series. 

Part 2 – Theme, narrative and structure for learning escape rooms

Part 3 – Creating puzzles for learning escape rooms

Part 4 – Making learning escape rooms smooth experiences

The series is intended to help you if you want to design your own learning escape room, or just learn more about how they work. If you’d like to talk about having a bespoke Escape Room created for your learning experience, please get in touch