In the summer of 2016 I went to an “Escape the Room” puzzle in New York City with my wife and two friends. If you don’t know what an “Escape the Room” puzzle is, it’s basically a puzzle where you are put in a locked room, and you have 1 hour to figure out how to get out of the room. There are countless themes and variations on how ETRs work. The first one I did was a detective’s office: we had an hour to gather evidence proving this was a crooked cop, and find the key to unlock the door before this fictitious detective got back from lunch. This one was pretty fun, there were trap doors, secret buttons, and black lights exposing invisible ink. We escaped the room with just 30 seconds to spare. I did another ETR that was really fun: a bank’s security system was undergoing repairs for 60 minutes, we had to break into the bank, open the vault and escape with the treasure. The best part of this ETR was when we found a remote controlled car that was controlled by a provided tablet. We had to put the car into an air-vent, turn on the car’s lights, navigate around the vents until we found a secret room. In the secret room there was a button on the wall that we ran into with our little car. When the button was pressed it opened the door to the room, and we got in. I have got out of 60% of the rooms I’ve gone into, and would recommend the experience for anyone. If you’re in NYC I would recommend this place.
But what really interested me about the experience was the mindset you are put into during this 60 minutes. ETR participants feel: energized, extremely aware of surroundings, curious, collaborative, and creative. The hour goes by in a flash. I fell in love with that cocktail of feelings. It reminded me of the most inspiring classes I’ve taken and taught, encapsulated in a puzzle room.
Can “Escape the Room” puzzles be educational?
ETR rooms are almost exclusively built for adults. The motor control, creativity, and general life-skills (things like: how to open a safe or use bolt cutters to cut a lock off a door) make ETRs inappropriate for kids. But the feelings I experienced during that hour were so powerful, I wanted to think of a creative way to make an ETR ‘like’ experience that could be educational for kids.
Barrier #1- Let us not pretend to lock kids in a room.
If someone told me I was locked inside of a room when I was a kid, it would have scared the hell out of me. Even if it was explained to me that I could leave anytime I wanted, or the lock wasn’t real, I think I still would have been frightened. Plus telling someone something, then explaining that something isn’t real kind of takes away from the ‘authenticity’ of the situation. I wanted to create another environment where children had to solve problems in a certain amount of time, for some fun reason.
Solution #1- The Bye-Bye Box
The Bye-Bye Box is two crates held together by two door hinges, so the Bye-Bye box can open like a book. The Bye-Bye Box also has 3 hasps (the metal things you actually lock the different locks to, had to look up the name) and 2 or 3 different padlocks (depending on the difficulty of the puzzle), and a paper shredder mounted on the inside of the box. The paper shredder is hooked up to a remote controlled attachment giving me the ability to turn the shredder on and off remotely. And yes I did get funny looks in Home Depot and the NYC Subway carrying around all this, but once I explained it people were like ‘oh ok, that’s freaking sweet good luck!”
Barrier #2- Will this actually be educational while still being thrilling?
Here’s how the “Count’s Chess Puzzle Room” works: Kids come into the chess club, solve riddles to find clues, then solve chess puzzles to get numbers to open different locks. Students have 1 hour to open the Bye-Bye Box or else the shredder destroys “the prize.” Maybe the prize is patterns that the children can color if they succeed, or maybe 6 chess puzzles on a sheet of paper that will help the student beat whomever they want in chess. The addition of a consequence of failure is what injects urgency, and adrenaline into the students as they solve the riddles and puzzles.
I want to tell you about a typical hour lesson in the “Count’s Chess Puzzle Room.” This will help you see how I used chess, and a couple of other puzzles to get my students to feel the same way about chess as I did the first time I did an ETR puzzle.
The Opening Letter: Kids come into the chess club to find an envelope on the table, and a curious locked crate that they may or may not have seen before.
The kids read the clue and find the first envelope behind a Christmas themed design on our wall of fame. Here’s an example of a type of chess puzzle I use in the clues, and how that clue translates into opening up a lock.
Now the students have the first number in a lock combination. They will have to find another clue in the chess club with another chess problem on it to discover the rest of the numbers.
Maybe for an hour we follow one game all the way through. And at different points during the game I insert a puzzle into the narrative that gives the students the next number in a lock’s combination. With a little creativity and planning you can easily write hour long lessons that your students will be energized to do lest they fail to open the “Bye-Bye Box”, and see their prize shredded before their eyes!
Another example of how to connect chess and the “Bye-Bye Box”
One week the “Bye-Bye Box” lesson was centered around a Mikhail Tal game. At the beginning of the lesson the following clue was given: the white queen opens the white lock. Here’s a photo of the white lock.
This is a cool lock I found at Home Depot. In this game Tal moves his queen 5 times: starting from d1 to d4, then to d2, d3, g3 and ends the game with Qg6. Here’s what those queen movements look like.
The combination for the white lock is: Up, Down, Up, Left, Up. There are a lot of ways to translate those queen moves into a 4 digit, or letter, or movement-based combination: maybe
This doesn’t have to just be about chess, here’s an example of a plot line I used today that uses playing cards.
Around the chess club were 20 playing cards that students had to find. The back of the cards were labeled a1-e4 so the students had to organize the cards correctly in a 5×4 grid. Once the grid was made, the students flipped the cards over to reveal the other side. And are given the below riddle:
The children had trouble discovering which way to stack the cards. The Ace of Clubs has “Start Here” written on it, and the 10 of Spades has “Finish” written on it. The children first tried making a pile of cards based on their value, aces first, then 2’s, then 3’s and so on. This is was not the correct order. One keen student realized there was so sort of bizarre path going between all the cards, maybe that was the order they should be stacked in. And indeed it was, when the cards were stacked in the correct order, the students found the secret message written on the sides of the cards.
The possibilities of what can be taught through this new method is endless
Any age any elo (chess strength)
One of the beauties of the Bye-Bye Box is it’s re-use-ability. Most ETRs can only be done once, once you know the ‘secrets’ of the room. But the combinations on all the locks can be changed, different plot lines can be added, and difficulties of the chess puzzles can be adjusted so that a chess player of any skill could be challenged by it. Have a student who is 6 years old, and only been playing chess for a few months? Put some easy puzzles in the clues, and only have 2 locks on the Bye-Bye Box. Or maybe GM Eric Hansen and his Chess Brahs are coming up for a challenge, crack open a Kasparov book, and pick the most difficult puzzles and use 3 padlocks instead.
Can I sign me or my kids up for this?
This is the only Educational Chess-Themed ETR that I know of. The Chess at 3 Chess Club is at 1309 Madison ave NYC. If you want book a session for you or your child you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have a question about the Bye-Bye Box or the lessons I’ve written that go along with it, feel free to leave a comment!
If you’re thinking: are you insane you have a locked box with a paper shredder that children put their hands into?
Before children begin any “Bye-Bye Box” classes a couple of rules are settled. 1. Children can try to actually unlock the locks but cannot open the Bye-Bye Box or put their hands inside the box for any reason.
The way I built the “Bye-Bye Box” has some safety failsafes that makes it impossible for a child or anyone for that matter to be hurt by the paper shredder. 1- The paper shredder is off at all times, the only way it is turned on is by a button only accessible to me. 2- The shredder will only be turned on when the box is closed. I’ve taken all possible safety measures, and if you want to something like this, it is 100% necessary you do too