When most people think about those who play board games, they either think of serious table-top dice-rolling aficionados or casual party players trying to build a monopoly, conquer the world or solve a murder mystery.
The last thing they would expect board games to do is to help students get a leg up on their studies.
That is exactly what Shaun Low, an educational therapist, wanted to achieve when he founded Swords & Stationery, an educational therapy programme that uses games to teach students with learning difficulties such as ADHD and dyslexia.
The 32-year-old tells The Pride: “It started in 2014 (when he was working at the Dyslexic Association of Singapore) when I was teaching mostly Secondary 2 to Secondary 4 students. I felt that the techniques they were taught were not entirely effective … there was always some missing connection that they couldn’t make.”
“That got me thinking: Is there a way that I can help them to visualise things better?”
Using games to teach academic skills
This prompted him to get creative with the way he taught his students.
“I have always enjoyed games. I wasn’t so much of a board-gamer at first. I was more of a role-playing gamer and I’ve always wanted to get into wargames as well. So I wanted to try to go from that approach to see whether I can use RPGs to get them to overcome this obstacle.” recalls Shaun.
Shaun says that the games are highly customised based on the needs of the students and the message of the lesson he wants to convey.
He shares an example: “So I played this RPG called Dread with (my students) which uses a Jenga tower. I used it as a metaphor to symbolise how when you are writing a good story, you have to imagine it as if the tower is getting taller and the stakes are getting higher. At the highest point of the ‘tower’ is where you start to tie the story back to the moral. When I used the tower as a metaphor, they were able to understand it better.”
Role-Playing Games as learning tools
Even though tabletop games come in many different genres, Shaun has found that RPGs work best when being used as a tool to improve the learning experience of his students. This is especially because they face learning difficulties and have special requirements.
Shaun describes: “An RPG involves creating a character. You’ve got to think multilaterally about your character like what your character looks like, what they’re good at and so on. From there, you go a little deeper like why is he or she good at it and how did his or her background help in that development. So they actually start to think alot about these things even in character creation.”
However, the intricate process of creating a character can prove to be challenging for certain students, particularly those who are new to gaming. To overcome this, Shaun helped to set the scene for the students and prepare them for the dynamics of the game.
Shaun explains: “You’ve got to establish certain expectations and introduce them to how the game is like and how it’s meant to be played. So even during character creation, it’s really getting them to think in that critical and lateral way that I want them to.”
With games, the process becomes more memorable for the students as it makes the learning more interesting and fun-filled for them.
“If they’re not willing to learn, especially for students with ADHD, they just shut off. But if they feel like they can get into (the game) and they can fully focus on what is being said, then that information is retained in their minds.” says Shaun.
As Shaun acts as the game-master, he is able to put his students in different unique positions where they have to rely on certain skills to move on.
He explains: “They help children and teens to develop in areas that they are weak at. These areas vary widely and range from literacy and oral skills to one’s ability to follow instructions or stay focused. For example, I might design a scenario to involve more speaking and less combat, putting students in situations where diplomacy is key and thus learning that one’s wit can be sharper than a blade.”
Even after each session is finished, the learning doesn’t stop.
Shaun elaborates: “At the end, I will do an after-action review where I ask them questions like: ‘What do you think you did well?’ , ‘What do you think your partner did well?’ and then ‘How do you think you and your partner can improve?’
The questions are meant to bring the students back to the encounters they faced during the games and how they went about resolving them.
“When all these questions are asked, not only does it help them to retain the information better, but it also helps them to self-reflect on where they did well and continue to do that not only in the game but in real life.”
Educational therapy was never planned
Shaun’s journey to becoming an educational therapist was not planned. He studied economics at university but even that wasn’t his dream either.
Shaun explains: “My main interest has always been writing and language. After graduation, I spent about nine months trying to write a novella but it didn’t really work out. After that, I joined a small company as a sub-editor and reporter but that didn’t work out as well.”
Even then, educational therapy wasn’t something that he ever intended on doing.
Shaun shares: “(At my previous company) I stumbled across this job as an educational therapist and it seemed pretty good. After joining them, I really enjoyed the interactions I had with the kids … and the rest is history.”
So he joined the Dyslexia Association of Singapore and spent four years as an educational therapist before deciding to branch out on his own. This allowed him to fully incorporate games into his educational therapy sessions.
His students are his top priority
Currently, Swords & Stationery has 25 students. Thanks to Shaun’s unique approach to teaching his students, they are able to keep benefitting from the sessions through multiple levels of their education.
He shares: “The longest one has been with me since Primary 2. He’s in Secondary 3 next year. That’s something I think many other therapy centres or even tuition centres don’t see as well. Because the kids for them come and go. But for me, (since the students tend to stay with him from primary to secondary school), there still is a lot more I can do with them. And of course they want to continue the RPG campaigns!”
The campaigns help because they can span at least 15 episodes where each student can develop their character avatar. This allows him to teach them short-term lessons such as subject-based knowledge and long-term lessons like behavioural norms.
Shaun keeps each session at Swords & Stationery to a maximum of four students to give each child a conducive learning environment. Group therapy sessions last two hours while one-on-one sessions last 1.5 hours. Group sessions cost $70 per hour while individual sessions cost $100.
Unfortunately, due to the Circuit Breaker, Shaun was unable to hold physical classes but he has been able to adapt without sacrificing the quality of the lessons.
“Using (group-chat app) Discord, I could do fun things like (interactive fiction) Choose Your Own Adventure stories, but things like spelling were less straightforward. To avoid having too much downtime (which often causes his students to lose focus), I cut out certain steps on the students’ part, like writing graphemes, and instead got them to focus on breaking up the sounds of a word.” shares Shaun.
Many of his students have greatly improved their grades after Shaun’s sessions.
“I’ve got one student who was offered to move up from normal (academic) to Express this year, but didn’t want to take it. Another student was perpetually failing his exams but managed to get promoted to the next level. Another one this year almost got promoted from normal (academic) to Express but was short of one mark.”
Some of his students have even been inspired to practise their writing skills out of class.
Shaun shares: “I’ve got students with dyslexia who started to do writing on their own – short stories, doing collaborative writing, which is really cool.”
Of course, it is always a challenging journey. Shaun says: “I would say that overall there’s nothing that’s really disappointing. Of course, there are some cases that don’t work out in the end, but that makes up only about one in 10 of my students”
Swords & Stationery also works with other organisations to offer the best experience for the students.
Says Shaun: “Right now we are working closely with The Gifted Lab (which offers psychological tests, special educational programmes and brain training). They have a psychologist team, so (if necessary) I refer students to them and vice versa.”
He also refers students with speech issues to freelancing Chinese educational therapists and or speech therapists from Mind Space, which offers educational therapy, speech and language sessions and counselling for children and adults.
His students motivate him to keep going
For Shaun, being able to see his students succeed after attending Swords & Stationery is enough to keep him going forward.
“When their parents give me positive feedback, that really makes my day. When the kids come to class and tell me how well they’ve done, that is also something that really brightens me up,” beams Shaun.
Shaun hopes that everyone – be it his students or others struggling with learning difficulties – to never lose hope and always have the courage to speak up about their condition.
Shaun says: “This is something I share with my own students over and over again – life is not going to give you a lot of easy paths. In fact, very rarely are any paths easy.”
“The important thing is always to keep your head above water. Don’t give up. Get help if you need it no matter which stage of life you’re in or how difficult it might be to ask”
“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
Top image: Facebook / Swords & Stationery