Yoga Gamification

One of the great things I have discovered on our new adventureis yoga. Yoga is an intensely personal endeavor and I probably approach it very differently than most. Strangely enough, for me it ties in well with gamification– a subject I’ve written about a few times before in the context of some of the ways we are unschoolingVie and Aidan. Here’s how I think about connecting yoga with it.

I had tried yoga before Costa Rica, sort of. Deb and I used to do it as one of the modules of P90X. We did yoga moves, and many were hard, but they were the same every time. When we came to Costa Rica, we started taking classes from Sattva Yoga and experienced a much deeper and genuine yoga experience. That’s where my yoga quest began – and I use that word intentionally.

For some context, I have traditionally been more of a team sports person for the most part all my life. I tend to get bored with repetitive individual sports like running, bicycling, swimming, etc. The individual sports I like tend to have some challenges to occupy my brain as well as my body, like snowboarding. I know many folks who tell me about the zen qualities of long distance running, or the peace of swimming but that’s not how I enjoy sports. I also tended to try many sports rather than fully dedicate myself to one and be the best at it. Aidan approaches sports that way too. Just one was hard to hold my interest.

Yoga does a great job occupying my mind as well as my body when I do it. It was the larger landscape of yoga that really hooked me, however.

Here is where I apologize to all my yogi friends. What I will share will probably not feel like the “essence” of yoga to many yogis or even most people who know much about it. However, in yoga, it is always about you and what you can do – not what everyone else is doing. So, for me, yoga shares many aspects of games. In my view, it is highly gamified and that is what draws me in.

Once again the definition of gamification I like comes from Gabe Zicherman:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (

As I started yoga here, I learned a number of new moves, or asanas (poses). Then, Deb saw a poster of 900 asanas and told me about it. I had no idea there were so many. So, I started doing some research to understand all of the moves. That’s when I created my somewhat geeky spreadsheet of yoga positions. I keep track of the Sanskrit and English names of the poses, a picture of each pose, and additional data such as type of pose, etc. I also track when I completed a pose.

You might think there was one site on the web with a full list of all of these asanas. There are several. None are complete. In fact, I keep finding new ones. My spreadsheet now has 1113 poses, of which I’ve completed about a third so far. My original goal was to complete them all this year. Of course, that seems unrealistic, I know, even though we practice yoga 5-6 times a week now. There are some incredibly insane poses and people spend lifetimes mastering a few. Still, I like big goals.

That’s where gamification comes in. The thing that motivates me is the exploration. I want to explore and complete every one of those moves. If you play video games in particular, it’s a lot like wanting to visit every place, every challenge, and try every move or skill. Master Yogis may spend years perfecting one asana. For me, I want to complete the asana well, but it doesn’t have to be perfect; I’d rather move on to try others. My spreadsheet is essentially my map of this journey.

So how do I connect yoga with gamification? Yoga, for me, meets many of the core criteria for gamification. It also is strangely similar to how role-playing games (RPGs) evolve. These are games like World of Warcraft and Halo (campaign, or “story”, mode). The one caveat is that most game mechanics* and game dynamics* involve games embedded in a social setting. I turn all of these inward in how I look at gamifying yoga.

Let’s start with game mechanics*. First off, for me, the range of asanas present clear goals and many paths to get there. It is not just about the outcome of attaining the goal, it’s also about how you get there. Many asanas require a lot of prep work and conditioning before you can even attempt the pose and there are usually particular ways of getting into the poses that enable more success.

The asanas present a series of progressively harder challenges. Each basic move has a relatively simple version. Tree pose (Vrksasana), for example, is pretty straightforward to start. Flip it upside down and you have Adho Mukha Vṛksasana, or a handstand. Add the lotus position to get Urdhva Padmasana in Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Now, make it one-handed and you get Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana. You get the picture. There’s plenty to keep me busy for years. Heck, even some of the basic moves are hard, like Bakasana:



Levels are a another common game mechanic. Yoga has no belt system like martial arts which could indicate one’s “level” or proficiency. However, I definitely feel a progression from simpler asanas to “higher level” ones. Things that were once very difficult are now easy. There is just no outward manifestation of your “level.” It is an internal feeling for me, and that ties well with the “spirit” of yoga.

Likewise, there are no points per se as a game mechanic. However, every time I complete a new asana, I log it in my spreadsheet. Only I see it. But, I know I got a “point” for that particular asana. It essentially becomes my own leaderboard.

Now we get to the softer game dynamics*, such as reward, achievement, status, competition, and even self-expression. They are all there, but as inward manifestations. If I accomplish a difficult asana, for example, I get the same dopamine hit gamers get when they accomplish a challenge. It’s an internal reward.

What excites me is trying, and accomplishing, new asanas. I don’t need an achievement badge on Xbox to feel the same result as getting an achievement. My spreadsheet shows me the ones I have and the many, many more I have yet to earn.

Self-expression comes with the territory in yoga. We are all built differently and are differently-abled. The way I complete a pose or even try to get into it (often awkwardly) is different than others. What I lack in grace, I have in tenacity, and that fuels most of the things I accomplish.

Competition is a tricky one. I am competitive. Very competitive Debbie would argue. However, yoga is not a competition for me with others. In fact we all love seeing someone accomplish a tough move that they hadn’t before. Rather, the competition, if anything, is internal. I push myself to do more and do it better. But, doing it better takes a big second seat to trying something new. I play RPGs the same way.

There are a few final ways that yoga is “gamified” for me. These come more from the world of RPGs than more basic “gamification” concepts.

Take skill trees, for example. If you look at a map of asanas, they look like skill trees in many RPGs. In RPGs, as you advance and get more experienced in the game, you “unlock” new skills that you can now use, such as new spell if you are a spellcaster. There are often different “trees” of skills for each type of character, such as fire spells or cold spells. Likewise, you can see “trees” of asanas. There are standing asanas, seated asanas, arm balance asanas (Bakasana is one), etc. Like RPGs, some skills may come more easily than others and they get more difficult the further you go (in “level”). As with RPGs, to get all the skills, you need to do it a long time.

For me, there’s even the concept of “quests.” I am currently on one of my own to achieve the Lotus position (or Padmasana). Once I do, I can “unlock” a number of variations that I have yet to try (that’s the quest reward). My ankles are pretty tight from soccer and don’t seem to bend the way most people’s do, so I have to work on trying to open my hips more. It will be quite an achievement for me when I get there.

Finally, there are “bosses” – those super-difficult opponents in games that you need to face, and defeat, before you can continue. Some asanas, like Lotus, are tough for me now, but I know I can work through them, like an easier boss, and get through to the other side (all those poses that become “unlocked.”). Then, there are a few asanas that seem so crazy difficult, like Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana, that I’m not sure yet how I’ll get there. I tend to approach those sorts of challenges in steps and work methodically toward them. Eventually they yield. Just like a hard boss.

I’m sure I’ve managed to unsettle my yogi friends by bringing gaming into the picture. To a greater degree, I probably also unsettled my gamer friends by, gulp, bringing yoga into the picture. Unsettling is good though. It’s an attribute of change. And here in the land of pura vida I think I’ve found that elusive “sport” that I care about dedicating some serious time to, which is a big change for me.

A big thanks goes out to all my yogi friends and teachers for making this an incredible journey. Namaste. And pura vida!


* There are several good sources on game mechanics and game dynamics. I tend to like. Bunchball’s simple and accessible Gamification 101 white paper.


One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, there are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!

More Updates

It’s been a little while since I posted some general updates about our life on our our new adventure. A lot has actually been going on despite the fact that we now don’t have jobs (mostly) and we live in a tropical paradise. We are definitely acclimating to tropical life, the slower pace, and pura vida. At the same time, we are who we are(!) and we are not sitting still much. We are finding lots of things to keep us busy.

I mentioned a few things in recent posts:  Deb finished working remotely for her job in Seattle at the beginning of February. She went back to Seattle to complete everything and brought us back more supplies. Around that that time she also took over a lot of the unschooling, giving me a little break.

Deb has added back more structure in Vie and Aidan’s unschooling and despite a little resistance, that seems to have helped a lot. She’s also brought in more structured/planned physical activity – “PE” if you will – so the young adults are getting out more and using technology less. We are also planning, with them, some excursions around Costa Rica now that the “high season” of tourists is winding down. One fun event we are working on this week is doing paintball. There is a course by Liberia airport and so we’ll all go out and try a “real-world” video game.

Another brilliant addition is structured time for “unstructured” discussion; i.e., just talking with Aidan and Vie. We have already had several great discussions including microeconomics, although that’s not how Deb introduced it. It was about simple basics like supply and demand, cost of items, etc. Then that led to microeconomics videos on Khan Academy, write up of understandings and questions, followed by more discussion. These are all things we experience daily and yet we rarely look at them as learning opportunities. So far, the young adults have been really engaged in these discussions.

Deb is also working on developing some possibilities for a business in real estate. She has always been interested and took a class while she was in Seattle. Her instincts are incredible and, not surprisingly, she has some creative and innovative ideas for rental properties here or in Seattle. Right now we are looking at interesting properties here as she finds them. We’re taking it slowly as she does her research. It’s one of several things we have going on here on the “side burner.” She loves the idea of having rental properties and I am fully on-board – at least as long as she deals with the people aspects, which she loves. I am happy being the “numbers” guy behind the scenes. Besides, wouldn’t you want to buy or rent from Deb? J

Aidan’s new activity is swim team. There is a local school here – Country Day – that allows non-students to participate in sports and other activities. They have a great pool and great coaches who are friends of ours from Spanish classes (everything here is really two degrees of separation from everything else). He is an awesome natural swimmer and has Deb’s talent. Now he’s starting to discover a bit of a competitive streak! Doesn’t he look like a young Michael Phelps?


Aidan is also still cooking and loving it, of course. He started positing his recipes up on He has his famous steak recipe I’ve mentioned before as well as a host of new ones. You can find them all under “enderSpartan828 the chef”). You have to read a few of his descriptions. He has a fun, and goofy, sense of humor. You’ll definitely get that as you read his recipes. Here’s his latest creation: KFC Copycat Chicken. I think it tastes far better and is far less greasy than KFC.


As an aside and for those of you who did not instantly get Aidan’s alias, it is not, as you might think, tied to Ender’s Game or the Spartans from antiquity. It’s a combination of an “enderman” from Minecraft and the modern version of Spartans from the Halo video game franchise.

Vie has been doing some pretty incredible digital Anime artwork using a tablet. It’s pretty amazing what you can do now on these. They really feel like you are drawing on paper with all of the subtly of hand drawing, plus digital capabilities that make it richer in many ways. Vie is way better than me on the tablet. I wish I could show some examples, but, well, Vie has an artist’s temperament and isn’t satisfied with anything enough to share it. Yet. News flash: Vie just sent me this and said I could show it!

friends forever

Vie is now starting to take the digital art the next step and work on animation. Vie is going down that long path of learning Adobe Flash. The first few weeks will likely be frustrating but it’s a tool that can take you from animation through coding to video game development. I’m still working on getting Vie to do a video game with me J .

Both Aidan and Vie have really taken to, one of many cool resources on the web we use in unschooling (see our Resources page for others). It combines gamification with topics from DNA to crafts to game development to coding and lets learners earn achievements for various accomplishments. I’ll be talking more about this later in an upcoming post on gamifying unschooling. And for grammar geeks, I did just use gerunds in a row.

Deb and I added additional Spanish learning through duolingo now, at the invitation of some good friends who will be coming to visit in May. It is also a “gamified” learning site. Look for us there as “delyca” and me as the very unoriginal “andycargile.” The young adults are also extending their Spanish through StudyStack, another great online resource.

I’ve had a few interesting activities myself. I just returned from a trip to San Jose to give a colloquium to the brand new interaction design program at University Veritas. The Directora of the program, Ana Domb Krauskopf, has put together a wonderful and new curriculum and assembled a very talented set of students. This is the inaugural year. From everything I’ve seen, this looks to be a world class program and an excellent place to recruit interaction designers in the future.

I have to thank Mariana Lopez, one of the instructors at the University, for this serendipitous opportunity. She recently graduated from CMU’s program and happened to spot me on LinkedIn “on a family adventure in Costa Rica”. She invited me to lunch and we chatted about interaction design. She connected me to Ana and then things progressed from there. It’s pretty amazing how things just come together sometimes.

I had barely put away my heavy tech gear (big monitor, keyboard, etc.) that I used to work on my colloquium deck when I got a ping from Mylene Yao, the CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley who asked if I was interested in helping them with an Angel pitch deck. This turned into a really interesting and fast little creative project. Univfy is a remarkable startup that uses some hardcore predictive analytics to help women on their journey of in vitro fertilization make better decisions by giving them far more accurate assessments of their chances to conceive.

It was an interesting transition from my “normal” routine here to a fast-paced, focused project. It’s been awhile since I had the luxury of working on a creative project for 7-8 hours straight a day. I mean that in the best sense. Even before coming to Costa Rica, it was rare in my last few positions that I had even a few hours outside my days of mostly meetings to really focus on something creative. I either had to spread projects out over time or do them “after hours.”

This was refreshing. It was invigorating. It also made my brain hurt in a good way! Most importantly, this project went very smoothly even though I was completely remote. In fact, it was ahead of schedule. I’ve done a lot of decks like this working with execs and the remote nature didn’t create challenges at all. I firmly believe, contrary to conventional wisdom, that creative work, at least like this, can be done remotely without the work suffering. It’s happening more and more globally (see oDesk and Elance as growing examples). For me, it gives me the ability to balance everything better. I’m hoping more opportunities like this come up.

On the “home front”, we are still searching for a new place. Our current rental house isn’t terrible, but it’s a bit dark and the kitchen is small, especially when several of us are working on a project. We are also hoping that if we can find something closer to the beach that the young adults will be able to get to the beach more often on their own. Our search for a new place actually led us to a bit of an unlikely adventure.

Deb found an incredible place on the hill overlooking Playa Penca, a nearby beach. While we were willing to spend a bit more to get closer to the beach, this was out of our range. Deb, wanting to practice her negotiation skills offered a deal where we’d rent it for 8 months (through the low season) but for less than half the asking price. Surprisingly, they said yes! We went and looked at the place and fell in love. It was on 6 lots, had three large bedrooms and a lot more space. It had an outside palapa and a huge kitchen, along with a handyman who lived on site in a separate house. That’s when the adventure part kicked in.

The owner wanted us to pay for the whole rental up front, which was a lot of money, and sign a contract in 3 days. That wasn’t too odd for rentals here, but asking us to wire the money to London was. As Deb investigated this erratically-communicative owner, she learned that in fact this wasn’t the owner. The actual owner, who was quite nice, never got our emails; they were intercepted from the VRBO site. It seems someone hijacked his email and was looking to scam him, and us. Even follow up emails about this never made it to him. Sadly, he never got our proposal nor agreed to our negotiated price.

We had aspirations of tracking down the culprit, especially since we had his bank and routing information. I really wanted to set up a sting. Unfortunately, the owner didn’t seem to be terribly interested, so we dropped it, along with our hopes for renting that house.

Fortunately, we did not wire a lot of money to a scam artist.  Deb’s diligence and “spider sense”, along with good karma and pura vida, combined to keep us from that fate. We have one back-up plan but are still looking. We know something will come through. It always does when you least expect it. At least, it has consistently come through here for us.sche It might be a little metaphysical, but we really do think that if you contribute to the system of good karma it comes back at some point.  It probably sounds far more off the beaten path in Seattle than it does down here with all of the yoga, surfing and pura vida, but that’s okay. We are, after all, intentionally off path. Pura Vida.

The Grammar Boss

It’s amazing what a simple adverb can lead to here on our new adventure. This past week I created a bit of a grammar test for our young adults. I couched it as a “boss level” which, in gaming terms, is a part of a game where your character has to fight a difficult opponent – a “boss” – and you have to defeat it in order to move forward in the game. It was indeed a test, even though I worked hard to make it fun. And it all started with a debate about an adverb.

You see, I have a bit of a pet peeve about adverbs – specifically when people do not use them when they should. It irks me when “people drive slow” (i.e., slowly) or when they “do cook bad” (i.e., badly). For a good while now, I have been pointing out correct adverb use to Vie and Aidan. I usually get groans.

Awhile back, Vie and I got into a debate about some adverbs which didn’t seem to exist at all in Vie’s vocabulary, adverbs like “wrongly” and “cooly.” Eventually I had to look these up to prove their existence. The response I got was something like “Dad, people don’t talk like that.”

Now I do understand that colloquially we tend to drop the poor adverb’s “ly” in conversation. It doesn’t detract from its meaning. I hear young adults do this more often than older people and I may have a slight fear that adverbs in our language are going extinct. Nonetheless, I wanted to at least be certain that Vie and Aidan knew their correct use and more broadly, developed good grammar skills. .

So I told them I was going to make a grammar “boss level” and they had to pass it as part of their unschooling. While most of their work is self-directed, I felt I needed to make this ask. They are writing fairly regularly as part of their projects, but we are not doing an English or grammar “class.” I wanted to be sure they continued to develop their grammar skills.

The “boss level” was simply a short story that I wrote with 60 grammar mistakes. They needed to get the boss down to “25% health”, which means that they needed to find at least 75% of the grammatical errors to defeat the boss level. I have the whole thing here under our new Resources menu on our blog along with the answer key. And like many boss levels, it’s hard to defeat the boss in one try; you need to replay the level a bit to get past it.

I started creating the boss level with something either creative, or insidious, depending on your point of view. We all like adaptive games and so what’s wrong with a little gamification of grammar? I went back to some of their writing and studied their individual problematic grammar patterns – things that they would do regularly in their writing. I incorporated these into the “boss level.” It was a little insidious in that these would be tough things to catch since they made these mistakes regularly.

I had a lot of Vie and Aidan’s writing to draw on. Their “paper quest” – a 28 page multimedia paper comparing two video games – was a gold mine, particularly their rough drafts. I also scrutinized Aidan’s herbs and spices flash cards. I reviewed the emails we trade regularly.

I noticed several distinct and unique grammar issues each one had. Vie writes with incredible detail, but also likes to use the gerund form of a verb in sentences to the point that the sentence is really a phrase and not a complete sentence. For example:

And Diablo being an action role-playing game.

Vie is also a fan of run-on sentences. Commas are pretty rare indeed.

Aidan has a rich vocabulary but tends to have a bit of a blind spot for subject-verb agreement (“…fennel seeds is…”). He also tends to not catch the differences between “your” and “you’re”, “their”, “there”, and “they’re”, and “its” and “it’s.”

And of course, adverbs tend to be used sparsely in their writing.

I created a list of all the types of grammatical errors that were patterns in both of their writing and then I incorporated similar patterns into the grammar boss story. Here’s a sample paragraph.

“Your a fool. There is no differences between my army and the greatest Orc army of all time! it’s ranks stretch two the very edges of the hall. My soldiers is well known for being brutal. You cant even compare them to another Chieftans army. When you army stands next to mine their, you can see all the differences such as, their hugely size, large teeth, terrible disposition, and etc.”

I tried not to get too subtle with things they had little practice with so far, such as writing with dialog, but I did put in several very subtle errors that they should be familiar with. I also included a healthy supply of what I assumed were going to be very obvious errors. My goal was that on their first pass they would only find about 40-50% of the problems.

I gave them the test and allowed them to work together on it. I was hoping that since they each had their own blind spots, working together might help them both catch a good number of the errors. In their first pass, Vie and Aidan only found 30% of the errors. I was surprised especially because I told them that there were 60 errors and they stopped at 20.

Vie then took a pass alone. Some of the subtleties started appearing and Vie diligently worked through several iterations, getting closer and closer to the goal. I helped a bit b identifying how many errors were in each paragraph. It was pretty amazing though to see what did not pop out at all. As I expected, patterns were often missed, but even some of the more obvious errors didn’t get identified. Vie hit 90% after 4 tries.

Aidan needed a little motivational encouragement to get through the level. Well, actually, a lot. In each of his iterations, he would find a few more and then want to stop. When I explained that this was like one of the games he played where I’ve seen him play the boss level up to 10 times before he gets through it, he got the rationale I was using for the grammar boss. He then buckled down and made it through. He hit 75% on his 5th try. Unlike Vie, it didn’t seem to be interesting enough to raise his score more 🙂

I’m sure the boss level was tougher than was probably appropriate for their level. I’m clearly not an English teacher and I don’t have a good idea of what level of writing they should be at (yet). I also don’t have other examples of student writing handy to gauge where they are. But, the grammar boss level was doable. It wasn’t so frustrating that they wanted to give up. Even if it was not as “fun” as I had hoped, I did see engagement.

In the end, it was nice to see them collaborate on the first pass. I need to build more collaboration into their projects. It was interesting to see them develop a bit of an eye for proofreading. It’s a useful skill that I still see many adults shy away from. And, somewhat not surprisingly, Vie and Aidan identified every one of the adverb errors in the first pass. The most priceless thing since then is that I’ve watched them watch TV shows like MasterChef and one or both will correct someone who forgets the “ly” in their adverb. I hope I didn’t create little grammar monsters like me. Well, maybe I do 🙂

You can try the Grammar Boss Level here. The answer key is here.

Our First Unschooling “Period”

Aidan and Vie are motoring on their unschooling fronts as part of our new adventure. It’s been challenging for all of us in a few areas as we try to find an unschooling rhythm. It’s also been rewarding to see the young adults start to do some very interesting things.

There are so many things to write about as we get going. Here I think I’ll focus more on what the kids are doing. There are some higher level themes we are trying to engender, but I’ll go more deeply into those later.

I’m fortunate that I made my (over)scheduling mistake early and was able to correct it. Aidan and Vie have now mostly found their schedules and are getting into their respective rhythms. Aidan needs a little more structure so I developed a spreadsheet for him to track his unschooling hours, reading hours and technology use. I‘m secretly hoping he likes using Excel enough to use it for more planning activities as a tool.

Our primary goal for this first “period” (aka semester, quarter, etc.) of unschooling is really building confidence, engagement, and passion for learning more than mastery of any particular thing. We don’t think that mastery can come easily without the former. We are also using this first period to get the young adults familiar with some basic digital tools like Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher and even some more specific ones.

Toward that end, Vie and Aidan both chose two projects to work on based on their interests. We added in some dedicated reading time and also learning Spanish. Learning Spanish was the one thing we asked them to add as a project because we’d like to get them starting to speak the native language here soon. We got a few grumbles from them over Spanish but they understood the importance and are working with it.

As I describe the projects Aidan and Vie are working on, you’ll see a gaming, or “gamification” theme influencing them. This is intentional on our part. I’ll speak more about this in another post soon, but gaming is a great way to foster engagement and really understand the core aspects of what they are learning – and they are both very interested in gaming.

Aidan chose two cooking related projects. He loves cooking, cooking shows, and trying new foods. We actually call him “Chef Aidan.” His first project is to create a cookbook of recipes that he’s created on an online site like This is a big project that will require several big steps and a lot of learning about foods and cooking. His first step in this project is to get to know all about herbs and spices. As part of this, he is creating 20 flash cards that each describe one herb or spice. Here’s an example.

spice flash card

He’s nearly finished laying out all of the flash cards in Publisher and is working on tying them to the cuisines that they are used inn (the flags on the cards). Deb wants to get them printed and see if Aidan can sell them!

In the process of doing these flash cards, I gave Aidan a side “quest” of writing a description of the difference between herbs and spices such that it would definitively categorize something into one or the other (or not applicable). In other words, nothing would end up being both or somewhere in the middle. I can’t immediately do this, mind you. Aidan is working on it, but he started off with “something off the top of his head” he says: “hydration”. It was pretty brilliant. I’ve been throwing different spices and herbs at that one word and so far it is working pretty well to distinguish the two (notwithstanding the fact that one “could” dry herbs).

Step 2 in Aidan’s first project is to start cooking and getting to know some basic techniques and recipes. Clearly, this is a lifelong project, but we’ll just start cooking a variety of things in Aidan’s “test kitchen” so that he can begin to try some of his own creations.

As his final step, he’ll create and write up 10 recipes. He’ll need to perfect them in order to actually write up the recipe so this will get him very familiar with prototyping and iteration – part of a good design thinking process. We’re hoping that he can write up one of the recipes in Spanish to help compliment his learning of the language. Look forward to some updates, and fun stories, around “Chef Aidan’s” recipe project. I understand he wants to create “sour gummies” as one recipe. That will of course involve chemistry!

Aidan’s second project, which he wants to start after his first one is complete, is very cool. It is a baking card game. It is similar to some of the more popular thematic card games like Munchkin. He’s thought a bit about the game mechanics and play as part of his prep work. It will not only help teach players baking concepts, including chemistry, but it will also be a lot of fun to play. More importantly, combining a constructivist (i.e., “making”) approach to learning with gamification principles, we expect that Aidan will learn a ton about how to learn in general.

If Aidan is our chef, Vie is our artist. Vie already has quite a following on Deviant Art. It was natural that one of the projects would involve digital art, and so it does. Vie is already very proficient with indirect digital drawing tools such as Wacom tablets, where you look at the screen while drawing on a small pad with a digital pen. Vie is now mastering direct digital drawing – drawing directly on the screen (of a tablet, for example).

Vie’s first project is to learn 3 different programs for digital drawing and then compare the three of them, possibly in a video format. Vie is already very gifted at drawing and is a master at SAI, a digital paint tool used in a lot of fan-based anime art. For some reason that “product loyalty” means that learning Adobe Photoshop is out. However, Adobe Illustrator is one of the chosen ones. Illustrator is a vector based (drawing) product vs. a raster based (painting) tool so that should provide some new skills and learnings. It may be useful in the second project as well. Vie is still working out what the other two tools will be. One might be a 3D tool such as Maya, which is a high-end tool for creating 3D animated characters. You’ve likely seen its results in most recent animated films.

These are all professional art and design tools, and they all have “professional” price tags. Vie is using the one month free trial period most have for this project and to see if they might be of future interest. Meanwhile, I’m trying to see how an “unschooler” can qualify for an educational discount given all of the institutional verification forms. Who said it would be easy J ?

Vie’s final result (“deliverable”) for this project will be the same character image drawn, painted, or rendered in 3 different programs, highlighting the strengths, weaknesses and differences of each tool. It should be pretty awesome to see and we are hoping that vie does a simultaneous “speed painting” video of the three for YouTube. We haven’t seen that sort of comparison before.

This brings us to Vie’s second project. It is still getting defined but Vie is trying to bring together several interests, both near term and long term (i.e., career). Vie is very interested in being a professional game videographer, game tester or game designer. A “game videographer” (my term) is someone that creates videos showing how to play aspects of a particular game and then puts them on YouTube to make money. (It was a new one for me too.)

There are really 3-4 projects wrapped up here and we are working to separate them a bit so we can have a clear, focused project with some sort of deliverable. Vie is leaning toward learning how to make a video, in this case of someone showing how to play a sequence in a game. Vie is already working on learning video screen capture tools (TinyTake or Camtasia), audio tools for voice-overs (Audacity), and video editing tools. For now we are using Microsoft Movie Maker but if this interest grows, as I suspect it will, then we will move to Adobe Premiere – and that is a serious professional tool that will be great to learn early.

There is a lot of tool learning, and consequent frustration, going on right now. That is expected. Most of us who use these tools have gone through it too. I expect that this project will be more about learning the tools. I hope that Vie can then develop some deeper learning about the gaming industry in the next several projects. Those projects will likely involve things like gamification, coding, testing, designing, interviewing gaming professionals, and project management. An exciting possibility is that there are now online certifications you can get in gamification and Vie may pursue one. More on that soon.

On top of these projects, I am still sending Aidan and Vie links to TED talks, articles and resources that are relevant to what they are doing in order to get their juices flowing more. One which I’ll talk about more in a future post is the first 18 minutes of a Harvard Law School course on philosophy. It is surprisingly accessible and makes you think.

While I am still trying to figure out how to bring math more into the mix, these projects all involve reading, research, writing, problem solving, critical thinking, project management, and design skills above and beyond the specific subject matter knowledge and tool skills inherent in each project. Vie and Aidan are getting very digitally literate. Most importantly, they seem to be enjoying their projects and learning in general so far. And for us that is a key metric of success for this first “period” of unschooling.