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Let the Games Begin

Tuesday, April 4, 2017  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Shaking up the regular school routine benefits students and faculty alike: a non-uniform day, a field trip, or some background music in the classroom can add some fun and interest to an otherwise typical day. But what if you turn two days upside down for team-building games and activities that really test students’ abilities?

When Joe Fenlon, head of middle school at Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa, FL, sent three teachers to visit Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School (HIES) in Atlanta for two days last year, he wasn’t sure what they would come home with. He learned of the middle school games program at HIES and thought it sounded interesting and different. His teachers had the opportunity to observe the games in action and speak with their faculty at length about the construction of the games. They learned of the vast amount of time and extra effort by teachers to plan the program, but everyone agreed it was well worth it.

The teachers spent a year preparing for the January 2017 launch at Tampa Prep, which they named “Pirate Games” in a nod to the city’s annual Gasparilla festival. Students worked in small group teams, each with different colored T-shirts, to answer questions, complete tasks, and solve mysteries. One task involved STEM-related construction while another task included a physical challenge. Students rotated serving as leader within their teams for each task.

“Kids learned so much about themselves, and each led in a different way with their own technique for getting it done,” Fenlon said. “It made their education come alive with problem solving, critical thinking, and being able to negotiate. It reinforced the skills we are trying to teach them.”

Tampa Prep enlisted numerous parent volunteers to support the teachers on the two days of the games. “People were a little wary but it was a great experience for our school,” Fenlon said. “It was a good team-building activity for adults in the building as well as the kids.”

HIES this year held the “Hunt for the Trust,” which took students through a variety of tasks – academic question sheets, scavenger-type hunts to locate the next clue, and STEM activities, such as building a 5-foot tower out of tape and balloons. Many clues were presented as videos that teachers created, and students traversed the entire campus on foot over the two days. One clue was uncovered in the lower school nurse’s office while another was found in the upper school library. One of the teacher chaperones logged a total of 6 miles on her activity tracker on day one alone.

A team of 8th grade girls who won the Hunt for the Trust attributed their success to their speed (sometimes running from task to task) as well as their teamwork. “Everyone was motivated and ready to work,” one student said. As 8th graders and three-year veterans of the games, they knew what to expect and entered the games with a plan to succeed.

Fenlon said he was surprised to see his 8th graders get so fired up but they were in it to win it. “One kid told me it was better than any video game he’d ever played,” Fenlon said.


“My favorite part is to see how engaged the students are,” said Daniel Forrester, director of STEAM at HIES and co-leader of the games. “There is collaboration, academic questioning, engineering tasks and more. It’s not just hanging out with their friends. And all the teachers are on board and they get to interact with kids in a different way.”

Tampa Prep intends to hold the games again next year, and another SAIS school plans to launch its own version of middle school games in 2017-18 as well. After reading about the games program in SAIS HeadLines last year, Palmer Trinity School in Miami, FL, sent two 6th grade teachers to observe the games at HIES this past February.

“It seems like a great project for us to try here,” said Peter Tolmach, head of middle school at Palmer Trinity. “We want kids to work independently but also collaboratively and this program lends itself nicely to that. And we’re always looking for good interdisciplinary projects.”

The school may launch the program with 6th grade only for the first year, then add 7th and 8th grade in successive years. Teachers Anthony McFarlane and Andrea Frisco are currently working on a proposal for the games. “Holy Innocents’ has been very gracious and very helpful,” Tolmach said. HIES also assisted Tampa Prep with getting its games off the ground, and offers support to any other schools who may wish to utilize their program’s curriculum.

“We’re more than happy to share, to collaborate, and to answer any questions,” Forrester said. “It’s nice to have that collegial interaction with the other schools and help them create their version of the program. It’s really rewarding to know that there are other schools that are willing to let their kids experience it.”  

While schools encounter some uncertainty any time they launch a new program, that, too, is part of the benefit of the middle school games, Forrester noted. “We often ask our kids to put themselves in uncomfortable situations and not be afraid to fail,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask teachers to step outside the traditional classroom setting, but these are things we know our kids need in a 21st century education. There’s fun and competition but later on they will be able to connect the experience to things they go through as adults – collaboration, frustration, and the conflicts they overcame.”


Interested in learning more about the middle school games program? Contact Daniel Forrester at or Gary Klingman at


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