Puzzles are one of the main resources a teacher could use to make pedagogical escape rooms. They require active learning, critical thinking and out-of-the -box thinking as well. They are good to promote problem-solving skills and cooperation and communication.
All of those are essential soft skills that are targeted in a pedagogical escape room.
Designing process of a puzzle
As with escape rooms in general, it is good to work backwards to create puzzles.
As we saw in previous lessons, you have linear path puzzles , open path puzzles and multi-linear path puzzles in terms of ER general structure. These same structures can be applied to separate puzzles themselves. The general type of puzzle needs to be chosen in advance, in accordance with the pedagogical objectives you may have.
Hence your final, general objective is your starting point. From there, you need to identify the materials you want to cover, and list all the elements you want in the escape room.
Those elements are your answers. As there are different types of puzzles, you may need different types of answers as well.
From your answers, you can first imagine how you could ask the question, what kind of elements you need the students to discover, and you can create your puzzles elements to answer to those required elements.
Those puzzle elements need to be found through a question or an enigma. So, once you have your answer divided into several puzzle elements, you may formulate your question of enigma.
The question or enigma itself can be presented as a puzzle. This creates a series of interlinked puzzles, which is usually one of the basic structures of an escape room.
From there, you may adapt the design so that the puzzle fits the theme of the escape room, or you can choose your puzzle types depending on the theme before-hand.
For example; with an ancient Egypt theme, if you want to use an encrypted message, instead of using simple symbols, you may use Egyptian symbols that are presented as decoration on a wall.
Once you have designed your puzzle completely, do not forget to test it to see if it works correctly and how long it takes to solve.
The process is: you go from your general objective, to the materials that you want to cover (answers), to the questions that you want to ask to find those answers, to the choosing of the puzzle you can make with those answers, to the incorporation of these puzzles into your escape room following your theme. And finally, multiple tests ofthe puzzles.
Basically, when listing your answers, you can have 2 types of pedagogical objectives:
- The use of previously acquired knowledge and thus, the need to make links or use class theory to find the answer.
- The learning outcome is acquired through the process by which they arrived at their answer.
General Designing tips
It is good practice to have your puzzle clear. Pupils need to be aware, when they find an enigma or a question, that this is the starting point of a solving process, of putting the puzzle together. Contrary to the riddle, they are not especially supposed to figure out that this is a puzzle.
For example; they find several numbers around the room. There need to be a lock somewhere that obviously needs a number code to be opened. If the goal isn’t clear, the pupils won’t know what to use those numbers for and won’t figure out that there was something to solve.
Another thing to be careful about is to know the sequence. Puzzles usually follow a sequence to be solved. This sequence needs to be thought of, realized and tested before hand to see how it works. Again, the puzzle maker needs to work backwards from the answer, to see how they could divide it into several pieces and how it is supposed to be reassembled.
Also, the answer to the puzzle needs to be clear as well, once found. It doesn’t mean that the puzzle should be very easy to solve or obvious, but that there is only one answer possible.
Different puzzles in your escape shouldn’t be able to get mixed up either. It is generally better not to use the same type of puzzle twice in a single escape room. The process of solving it would become boring and the clues and elements of different puzzles would get mixed together.
Also, as there is only one solution, you need to make sure that just jamming things together until it works is not an option. For example, each wrong trial diminishes their leftover time. That way, they can still get it wrong a couple of times, but they will need to actually try and solve the puzzle.
But while different puzzles need to remain clearly distinguishable, a common thread and design is good to keep the Escape Room coherent.
Hence, the general design, theme and atmosphere of the escape room should be decided beforehand.
For example; high tech technology (with almost “alien”-style sci-fi design) would look out of place in a Harry Potter themed escape room.
A clue or enigma written in bright pink with little rainbows and hearts will tend to look out of place in a horror themed escape room. Consistency with theme and visuals is a must in a nice immersive escape room.
Puzzles can be much more than just a few puzzle pieces to assemble. Don’t hesitate to think outside of the box and use everything you can to give hints or make clues.
Use lights, revealing lights (invisible ink), sounds, decorative pictures, give clues into book titles left lying around.
Use patterns: objects that needs to be put back in their proper place to reveal a new clue for example.
Use unusual puzzle pieces. It can be anything from different tubes that needs to link two aquariums, wooden blocks, pages with parts of text that once on top of each other and above a light source make a whole text, same thing with bits of maps, etc.
Use different sorts of codes: Caesar encryption, grids, etc.
Make a puzzle into a puzzle: for example, a jigsaw puzzle that once assembled gives you the enigma to solve a new puzzle.
One very important step is to test your puzzle. This is important as you will see if the puzzle makes sense to someone else, how hard it is to solve, how long it takes to solve, if the clues are obvious are the clues obvious enough, if there is an element missing, does if it fits in the general theme of your escape room, etc. To do that, the ideal would be to have multiple testers who will not participate in the Escape Room experience. The input of a colleague, educator, or exterior people will be helpful. More specific guidelines for playtesting were given in Grain 8. These guidelines and advice can also be used for this phase of the ER design.
Puzzles in the physical sense of the term
As we saw in previous grains, there are lots of different kinds of puzzles. You may, of course, use puzzles in the classical sense of the term: having an image (or object) that is divided in several pieces and that needs to be put back together.
In order to create your own jigsaw puzzles there are resources available online, such as Jigsaw Planet (https://www.jigsawplanet.com/), that allow you to create your own puzzles by using the picture of your choice and dividing it in puzzle pieces.
What can be done is to have all your clues on cards, and the back of the card represents something that once put together will give another clue or solution. On this web page, you may find a free to use, editable template for that:
Other physical puzzles can consist of boxes that need physical locks to move in certain directions in order to open. Those are called “brain-teaser boxes” or “puzzle boxes”. The idea here would be to make the pupils understand the sequence needed to open the box. If the whole box is not available, directional locks exist on their own as well.
Material and Resources
Jigsaw Planet: Online resource that allows you to create your own puzzle by using the picture of your choice and dividing it in puzzle pieces.
It is also possible to find free resources made by other teachers online and for free. For example, here we have an editable template to create your own puzzles.
Free online editable template to make puzzles:
Online website that sells puzzle boxes, either for inspiration or to buy.