UConn 4-H Virtual Escape Rooms Keep Youth Engaged

4-H Escape Room banner photoEscape rooms have gained popularity with youth and adults worldwide as small groups work together to find clues, solve puzzles, and other tasks that allow them to escape from a room. Depending on the activity, there can be one or more rooms, and there is usually a time limit. Once the team has completed the task for each room there is a prize – in some cases the prize is just that they have escaped.

UConn 4-H, the youth development program of Extension in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, first introduced escape rooms in 2019 at the Middlesex County 4-H skill-a-thon event for youth ages 7-19. There were puzzles and a series of six treasure chests. The youth needed to unlock all six to get a prize. The escape room event was extremely popular and a fun way for youth to build teamwork skills and test their 4-H knowledge. Popularity was so high that parents and adult volunteers requested an opportunity to play and the entire experience was repeated with a new theme and puzzles at the same event in 2020.

When COVID-19 cancelled all in-person events, Marc Cournoyer, a member of the UConn 4-H team and designer of the 4-H escape rooms decided to move them to a virtual format to provide youth with an opportunity to continue participation.

“Teachers often use escape rooms as a fun way to teach learning concepts through puzzles,” Cournoyer says. “We created our first virtual escape room for younger 4-H members, primarily ages 7-12 in the summer of 2020, it’s called the Secret Clover Stash. Youth have to help Cris Clover find his way through all the puzzles to unlock doors and collect all the clovers.”

Youth from across Connecticut participated in the Secret Clover Stash. This virtual escape room was created using Google Forms and was basic in its design.

Several states from the northeast have adopted the Secret Clover Stash escape room developed by UConn 4-H and are using it with their youth members. The states are collaborating with UConn 4-H on a Computer Science Pathways grant through Google and National 4-H. Cournoyer shared the original escape room template with 4-H educators from other states.

A second version called “The Secret Clover Quest” is geared towards 4-H members of all ages. It was built in the format of a website through the use of Google Sites with gamification through the use of Google Slides, Docs and Forms. “This version is a much more immersive experience than the original due to the additional puzzle gaming aspects,” Cournoyer says.

“Youth can work as an individual or group to solve these escape room puzzles,” Cournoyer says. “These activities help youth build skills in creative thinking, problem solving and retention of key concepts through the use of gamification. Kids are learning through play.”

Cournoyer is currently submitting a proposal to educate others about escape rooms as a teaching tool this fall at the upcoming National Association of Extension 4-H Youth Development Professionals annual conference. He is also meeting with colleagues interested in learning more about how these escape rooms work and the science behind the design. A future goal is to assemble a team of 4-H educators from around the country to design new escape room experiences that will be hosted on the UConn 4-H Escape website. “It only makes sense to work together to give youth learning opportunities that are also fun and interactive. Since these activities are virtual there is no geographic limitation to who can participate. Therefore, it makes sense to work in collaboration with educators from other states rather than everyone inventing their own unique versions,” Cournoyer says.

All these breakout experiences can be found on the new UConn 4-H Escape website at https://4-h-escape.extension.uconn.edu/. A new breakout activity is added each month. There are three additional breakouts currently under development that will be appearing on the website in the coming months.

UConn 4-H is the youth development program of UConn CAHNR Extension. 4-H is a community of over six million young people across America who are learning Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), leadership, citizenship and life skills through their 4-H project work. 4-H provides youth with the opportunity to develop lifelong skills including civic engagement and healthy living. Learn more and enroll your child in the UConn 4-H program at http://4-H.uconn.edu/.

UConn CAHNR Extension has more than 100 years’ experience strengthening communities in Connecticut and beyond. Extension programs address the full range of issues set forth in CAHNR’s strategic initiatives:

  • Ensuring a vibrant and sustainable agricultural industry and food supply
  • Enhancing health and well-being locally, nationally, and globally
  • Designing sustainable landscapes across urban-rural interfaces
  • Advancing adaptation and resilience in a changing climate.

Programs delivered by Extension reach individuals, communities, and businesses in each of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities.

Article by Stacey F. Stearns