I’ve had the privilege of teaching art in a variety of environments – from still life oil painting at the college level, to combining art with science and history in a museum setting, to guiding highschool students through creating a comics anthology. Through these very different settings, I’ve found a list of constants that, when I keep them in mind, help me deliver the most enjoyable and effective art education for my students.
One of my core beliefs is that art is, at the heart of it all, something a student must teach themself, and that a classroom, workshop, or camp that wants to teach art is actually responsible for creating an environment and offering projects that facilitate that self-driven learning.
With that on the table, here is the pantheon of truths that, if I can hold on to all of them, help me create that learning environment:
So in addition to running tabletop games twice a day for the kids’ summer camp I ran at the Aga Khan Museum, we supplemented gameplay with a few different things: firstly, we spent time every day in the museum’s collection and travelling exhibits; we read aloud stories from the Shahnameh; and we did hands on creative exercises that fed into both learning about the museum collection and enhancing the gaming experience.
For our Dungeon World in the Shahnameh summer camp at the Aga Khan Museum, one of the challenges in the prep was writing adventures for up to four groups of players that kept them all wrapped up in Rostam’s Seven Trials, without tripping over Rostam or changing his story, and didn’t have them competing with each other or deciding some groups or GMs were doing things “wrong”.
I initially considered writing a single adventure and sending each group down the path on their own, as if each was playing their own playthrough of a videogame, but that’s ignoring some of the best things about tabletop games – collaboration and spontaneity. In the end, after a great brainstorming session with Daniel Kwan (who runs a huge collaborative multi-group epic campaign for kids at the Royal Ontario Museum) I came upon a shared map solution.
For the Aga Khan’s Dungeons and Dragons camp they wanted to go above and beyond a basic DnD game and take the kids into a very specific world – the world of the Shahnameh.
The Shahnameh is the longest epic poem (by a single author) known, written by the poet Ferdowsi about 1000 years ago. It tells the story of the mythic, legendary and historical past of the Persian Empire, from the creation of the world forward to the arrival of Islam in Persia in the 7th century, and introduces us to kings, demons, triumphant and tragic heroes throughout time. There is more than enough in the Shahnameh to create an incredible world for kids to game in, but what we were lacking, unfortunately, was time.
Because this was a pilot program, we had to focus in and be efficient in creating a world for a week’s worth of play, without spending time on things we weren’t going to get to. In the end, I had about two full days to prep things, so I really had to prioritize, and thankfully the museum staff had some great suggestions.
Gaming with kids was new to me – I’ve gamed with a lot of adults, and with folks who are new to gaming as well as experienced old hats, but kids was different, and not necessarily in a bad way! Firstly, I’d say that over half the kids were immediately ready to take the game seriously and get invested in the story, despite never having played something like this before. And by the end of the week’s 9 gaming sessions, I don’t think there was a single camper who didn’t care about their character, their quest and their teammates. Here’s an exploration of the challenges we faced as we ran the game and some of the greatest successes, as well:
The first thing I asked the kids was whether they were familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, and not a single one of them raised their hand. After digging around pop cultural references with them, the closest thing they could think of was the game Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons, from Gravity Falls. I figured that was a fine starting point.
When I was choosing what system to use with the kids, I had a few things to weigh – first of all, what kind of game play would be fun for kids both 9 and 12 years old (or 8 or 13, as sometimes we have kids right on the cusp sneak in); secondly, what would be a reasonable game to expect three new GMs to learn in a few weeks, especially when their own gaming experience was varied; thirdly, what game was flexible enough to be edited and adjusted and warped to fit the setting I was creating based on the Shahnameh. Finally, we had a fixed budget for the program, and I couldn’t expect them to order a whole suite of $40 players’ guides, dungeon masters’ guides, bestiaries or such. We needed something lightweight, compact and flexible, and Dungeon World turned out to be just the trick!
In July I spent a week running a Dungeon Worldcampaign as part of summer camp for 16 kids, aged 9-12, at the Aga Khan Museumin Toronto. It was my first longer campaign that I’ve designed, and the three assistants I had (who were amazing, thank you all!) had never run any tabletop RPGs before whatsoever. I’d been recommended by the excellent Daniel Kwan, who runs Pathfinder and DnD 3.5 for kids 11-14 at the Royal Ontario Museum, which you may have heard me raving about on Twitter in the past. It’s a really cool program, and it’s thanks to him that I got the chance to run this one at the Aga Khan Museum!