The Importance of Stories

Those of you who are familiar with our club will know that we run a summer camp for the kids every year when the summer holidays start (this year we have some kids coming all the way from Hong Kong…how AMAZING is that?!). When I first started working for Cambridge Kung Fu we ran the summer camp to work on our kung fu values, but not at the expense of having fun.  We taught a form created specially for the summer camp, played games for much longer than we normally got a chance to in the lessons and did some crafting activities that sometimes involved challenges and sometimes just because they were silly. It was loads of fun and the kids and instructors got a chance to bust out some truly spectacular moves that normally would never see the light of day in our regular classes. So, this is what we’d do every year….until one day (almost a year ago actually) I saw this video:

Now the title alone appealed to me, I’m a bit of a nerd and yes I like to play games (Munchkin anyone?). Being told how my sitting around playing games with my mates could help me improve the world was instantly going to grab my attention. So I grabbed my earphones and settled down to watch her at work. What I heard completely changed how I viewed our classes and eventually led to us approaching the Summercamp in a new and exciting way!

What Jane tells us is that rather than viewing online roleplaying games as something negative, they can actually inspire positive, world altering values and attitudes in the people who play them. People who play online multiplayer games (such as World of Warcraft) are used to cooperating with a massive number of people in order to achieve their goals, they receive constant feedback about how they are doing in regards to achieiving their goals and (now pay attention here’s the REALLY important part) they are constantly challenged to the edge of their ability, and no further. They are never given a world saving quest that is completely impossible for them to do, tantrum inducingly difficult (ahem), but not impossible. It is simply not possible for them to be given a quest that is beyond their characters level to complete. This constant feedback/validation of their progress and always being appropriately challenged, as well as being able to see the changes that occur in their environment due to their actions engage the player in the game and they experience “flow“. Being so engaged in the game makes its reality much more appealing than actual reality, the world they create with their character belongs to them in a more real sense than the life they create outside of the game.

It was this concept of engagement that completely changed how I looked at our kids classes. It was so OBVIOUS! Yes we have lots of fun playing the games and making the form practice funny and interesting, but we didn’t really have anything that meant the kids could claim the classes as their own. Nothing to completely engage them and allow them to experience flow on a regular basis. We needed stories, we needed a quest, what we needed, was an underlying purpose for everything that we were doing. Enter the summercamp and our willing guinea pigs students.

Together my fellow instructors and I created Zhe-Xian (pronounced chuh-zien) a former Cambridge Kung Fu student who had been thrown out of the summercamp many years ago for being lazy, dishonest and generally not a nice person. He had stolen all of the certificates and badges that the children would receive at the end of the week because he felt that if he (the most talented, amazing and disciplined student of all din’tchaknow) didn’t deserve a reward for his hard work then no one did. Via an angry SiJi Rin (SiJi is the title for a female instructor meaning older kung fu sister and teacher) demanding to know who had played this extremely unfunny joke on everyone, downloaded “security footage” a written ransom note and an e-mailed video we set the scene for the children.

Zhe-Xian had taken the certificates and badges and the children would only have three days to prove that they actually deserved to receive them at the end of the Summercamp. The children were provided with two chests (one for the older class, one for the younger class) made by Kung-Fu masters in the neutral dimension, these chests would judge each day whether the children had put in enough effort and focus and shown the Cambridge Kung Fu work ethic worthy of certificates and badges. If the children had demonstrated this then the chests would form a portal and give them a clue as to where Zhe-Xian had hidden the certificates and badges.

Throughout the week we did certain activities related to this storyline such as creating guardians for their badge and certificate once we found them and designing our own bracers to protect ourselves from Zhe-Xian’s mind control gauntlets (fat lot of good it did our instructors though!)

At the end of the week we put together all of the clues and had a treasure hunt around the school we were using. The children had to logically work out what the clues (little riddles about locations around the school) were telling us and help the instructors find whatever was hidden in that location. What we all found were not the expected certificates and bages, but a map! A map that finally showed the children where the prize was, but alas! Our instructors had been brainwashed and it was up to the children not only to recover the stolen goods and rescue the instructors, but also to reclaim their bracers that Zhe-Xian had sneakily stolen.

Needless to say the Cambridge Kung Fu children were victorious! The badges and certificates were recovered in time for the ceremony the next day, the instructors were saved and Zhe-Xian was shipped off to China to get some proper instruction.

The children got so involved with this story! From the start during their breaks they were hunting for Zhe-Xian to see if he was still hanging around, they were giving us ideas on what we could do to catch Zhe-Xian, every day when we got a clue they were talking to each other and the instructors about what it could mean, parents were coming in asking about who it was that had stolen from us (one of our instructors in particular had to console his daughter for the whole of the first night….I was not very popular with him), and to this day nearly a year later we have children asking us about Zhe-Xian.

They were engaged in the summercamp, they worked together. The older kids helped the younger kids, all the kids helped the instructors, they came up with their own versions of why Zhe-Xian was doing this and (most telling of all) I managed to hold 40 children enthralled in an activity for nearly half an hour without them noticing the other instructors sneaking off one by one because they had been “kidnapped”. But my point is this, none of this would have been possible without the underlying quest for them to complete. The “bad guy” to unite them together in achieving one purpose. At no point did they believe they couldn’t do it, we gave them a challenge and they smashed it beyond our wildest dreams!

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the importance of stories. How else are you going to convince children that they can defeat an ego maniacal bad guy? How else are you going to encourage them to willingly use their logic and puzzle solving skills to achieve an outcome? How else are you going to encourage them to stand by a fellow child and help them unbrainwash a teacher? Without the story all of the activities the children did had no purpose other than giving them something to do, with a story they had a purpose, they had a goal and with that they were truly unstoppable.

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