Dawn Raid at Enginaeum Outpost

Dawn Raid at Enginaeum Outpost:  A Breakout Box Adventure

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The story so far:  The malevolent Undeguad, minion of Pad Eeyah has forced his subjects into slavery, taken their free thought, and removed any hope of freedom and personal growth.  Now he has mounted a force against the lonely outpost of Enginaeum, a small bright spot in another wise cruel, dark, and dumb galaxy. Undequad has sent pre-invasion supplies to the outpost and while they aren’t carefully guarded, they are protected by magic spells and virtually impenetrable security.  Your job is to find and secure these supplies, and disable the spells and decipher the security blocks. You have several wise leaders with you who may help, but only the Sensei, who feeling foul of mood today, may or may not give you the correct answer. Good luck.  

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And so, armed with only their wits and a little help from their teacher, the brave warriors set off in search of…Well, you get the idea.  I wanted to try something a little different in the new year, and I thought a lock box activity would be the perfect way to set the tone for the semester.

What is a lock box activity?  Well, it’s kind of like an escape room problem solving activity but rather than escaping a confined space, you use a confined area, or school, or room(s) to break in to locked boxes.  I won’t go into a long blog post tonight about how to plan one of these, but I will tell  you what you need to know to get started. I will add my insights and the resources you will need to make one of your own.  I also include my planning sheet so you can make one of your own.

I must confess that my activity wasn’t a lesson per sé, it was a review/icebreaker/refresher/reading/ writing/speaking /team building/ collaboration activity.  I am not one of those teachers whose aims in every class is to follow some script to a magical learning ending. In other words, not everything has to have a solid outcome to be a learning experience.  What the students did do was solve problems using a language they are struggling to learn and they succeeded with just a little help and a lot of reliance on each other.  Confidence was found today, my friends.  

So here goes. I didn’t dream up this idea lots of people have done similar activities. I came across lock box activity while I was looking around at escape rooms thinking I would like to try to build one.  Unfortunately, escape rooms require an inordinate amount of planning and extensive attention to detail, not to mention that any planning would require at least two different scenarios that could quickly be altered for each group that uses the activity.  Mexican students are notoriously helpful to other students, they can’t (won’t) keep a secret.  A privately owned escape room is out of the question due to transportation and cost issues.  Thankfully I discovered several videos on YouTube about lock box activities, and then I  found the Breakout EDU website and their breakout boxes.  ‘Breakout’ has developed quite an expensive little industry for itself.  But I am in Mexico, and I can find much better things to do with my money.  I started looking for alternatives.

So, I went to my Kindle and the Kindle store and found a great little book by Holly Johnson called Breaking Into Breakout Boxes: Escape Rooms in Education. The book gives pretty good advice on how to go about building such an activity. Even better, she explains the mistakes she made.  I paid particular attention to those to insure my first activity would be a success. I highly recommend Johnson’s guide book to get you started.  From her book I learned about all the different kinds of lock boxes, locks, UV ink, and QR codes among other things.  Since this was my first stab at it I decided to keep everything low tech and wherever possible, low cost.  This is where prior planning can really prevent poor performance and keep your costs down.

 I first had to think about how many students I had to work with and how many breakout boxes I would need.  I have 18 students I needed to keep engaged during the activity, so I settled on having students form two ‘guilds’ of nine scouts. That meant three teams of three on each side would venture out to find their respective boxes. To keep it challenging, the boxes would have to be found in the right order, by size. I found or bought  6 boxes (3 per team) sized from small to large, and while I couldn’t find the same locks that Breakout edu has to sell, I could try to make them progressively more difficult to open as well.  I built a little lesson into the contents of the boxes as well.   I added school supplies, and candy to each of the boxes, but in the medium and large boxes I put apples, crackers, and packets of celery sticks.  I added to the instructions found in the clues and in the boxes that the sweet things were not to be eaten. They were poison and would kill (disqualify) the entire team if one piece was eaten. ( I was going for delayed gratification and choosing healthy food over crap here…it worked actually).

I chose a wrapper story, a framing device, to put the activity in context.  I realize it may not be necessary to be so elaborate for some classes, but I have found that an interesting context can ease the suspension of disbelief.  I borrowed a few concepts from Lee Sheldon’s book, The Multiplayer Classroom.  The book centers on the teaching of game theory and design through an actual multiplayer scenario based on the online game, World of Warcraft.  It didn’t hurt that many of my students play online games like World of Warcraft. They were immediately comfortable with the context. See the quoted text at the beginning of the article.  All of the clues the students needed to open the lockboxes were written ‘in character’ to maintain the illusion as well. For clues to open the box I used materials we had worked with in the previous semester (See my notes for examples). This turned into a pretty amazing review session, I should add.  

Organization is the key.  I planned out where I was going to put the boxes in the school ahead of time, then wrote the clues to the box location. I had a simple on-boarding activity about correcting simple verb errors.  The activity contained instructions and clues. As soon as the teams completed this activity they could approach the Sensei for their ‘orders’.  The orders then would lead students to the first box.  Clues to open the box were fitted to the locks (folded and hole-punched so the hasp goes through the clue).  A clue as to the next location would be inside the box. The discovering team would have to give the next scouts the clue to find the box. That way I could engage everybody.  I added a reading activity to keep the scouts who hadn’t been out yet busy while they waited.

Unforeseen problems. The day of the activity, I arrived at the school a little early and hid the boxes throughout the school. After a short briefing, students were divided into guilds and the activity began.  What came next was a bit of a surprise. Students nowadays have no idea how to work padlocks.  I expected my students to have difficulties in reading English, but I didn’t expect they would wholesale ignore the clues or parts of the clues.  One team wandered from room to room, looking right past the box they were seeking because they hadn’t tried the YouTube video link listed in the clues.  The link took the students to a little video called ‘Copy Cat’ , but they couldn’t make the connection to the Copy center.  The Sensei’s job in these cases is to provide a little help,  I asked them where, oh where, did the see the word ‘copy’ every day.  One student asked, ‘like copy paste?’ I just kept repeating they see that word every day at school until the lights finally came on.  The Sensei’s other job is to make sure students have the right boxes.  Several times I had to tell students to put the boxes back where they found them because they felt they had to collect them all rather than read and follow the instructions (delayed gratification).  Students were mostly engaged and the disaster of a misplaced box, lost clue, or someone being left out of the fun never happened.

Conclusions.  The activity required a lot of thought and planning and it was all very time consuming.  It was also kind of expensive, though not unaffordable.  I now own everything I need to do this activity once or a thousand times more.  Unless you are reasonably good at planning I am not sure this activity, to this extent, is a good thing to try.  All that being said, I will be doing it again.  It was great fun for the students, and I do believe they got something out of it all, including the little lesson about food. They successfully avoided the candy and, oddly enough, rather seemed to like the celery.  The activity involved a lot of movement, communication, collaboration, hands-on work, reading comprehension and  problem-solving which are all things that make for a great learning experience. I will probably give it a bit more thought before I do it again to focus the learning objectives and outcomes.   


I found two wooden boxes and bought hasps to add onto them and the other boxes.  I bought two small and two medium sized, plastic tool boxes (on sale) and some nylon rope.  The tool boxes come with a hole to mount a lock, but they were too small.  I used nylon rope and taped together loops to fit the locks.  I wrapped the rope around the boxes to keep them from opening. See the photos above.

Locks.  All are from Master.  I chose combination locks that use letters and some with letters and numbers, as well as a couple of directional locks. These are available on Mercado Libre, Amazon, and Ebay as well as stores like Home Depot, Office Depot, Walmart, etc.  By far the locks are the most expensive part.  Simple key locks can be used, too.

My planning notes