Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Holystoning the Deck
  • Familiar form says this will be fun!
  • Offering seating and games can be a welcome rest within a museum visit
  • Games can highlight the role of chance within history
  • Can work as a summary activity, though more fun than a quiz
  • Instructions are important (and often tricky to write). Test with users.

Why it works

Board games can be a means of conveying or summarizing information, yet the visitor’s first assumption is “This will be fun.” A board game at the conclusion of A Sailor’s Life for Me? invites visitors to see who will be promoted first. The game pieces represent sailors that appeared in the exhibit. Each player rolls the dice, then lands on a square and draws either a Question Card or a Chance Card. The Question Cards are multiple-choice and ask about information presented in the exhibition. A correct answer moves you forward. We have observed visitors returning to the rest of the exhibition to find the answers to their question! Chance cards may move a player forward or back: stop to fight a fire and lose a turn or rescue a man overboard and advance two spaces. The first to the end is promoted and wins the “CONSTITUTION Challenge.”

The role of chance

Most games have an element of luck, and this can help visitors see the element of chance within history. Traditional presentations of history can give the impression that actions had foregone conclusions. Board games can put visitors in the historical moment to see that some elements of history are based on chance, timing, weather or other unpredictable forces. In Bath, Maine, a game about carrying cargo to port depends on the roll of the dice, where an unlucky roll may bring storms that impede travel.

Tips on designing games

Creating a board game is inexpensive; one graphic under Plexiglas can last a long time. Playing pieces should be large enough that they do not comfortably fit in a pocket and are not a choking hazard for young children. The Die is encased so that it does not walk away. Consider the length of interaction you desire (our target is 3 to 5 minutes), then test a paper prototype with visitors. We made a die with only 1, 2, and 3 on it to optimize the playing time. Writing clear instructions is trickier than it seems. Draft, test, modify, repeat. Observe visitors with the game to see where they get frustrated or confused. This step is crucial, because if they don’t understand the rules, they will never play.

Why should I use this technique?

This can be a good summary exercise to help visitors review what they have experienced in the exhibition. It is an opportunity to sit and reflect, while encouraging conversation about the experience the family just shared. The format of question and chance cards is simple. The subject of the questions can easily be changed to incorporate a wide range of content. It has proved to be effective, engaging and inexpensive. Families sit, smile and converse, laughing and learning together.