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A Drop in the Bucket

Brian Stumme
Joel Stewart
Suzanne Landrey
Barbara Delgadillo


| Instructional Objective | Learners & Context | Object of Game | Game Materials |

| Time Required | Rules | Design Process | References |

Instructional Objective

This board game aligns closely with the Grade Six California Department of Education Instructional Standards, and also touches on the Investigation and Experimentation standards for grades seven, eight, and nine.


Grade six science standards state that students should become aware of their environment and develop their minds in a way that encourages and stimulates inquisitiveness.  The major focus in grade six is on earth science, including resource management, sustainability and ecology. This game addresses Standard Set 6: “Resources and Ecology… impact of wasting resources and implications for decision-making and compromising” (California Department Of Education, 2003) in particular.  Grades seven, eight, and nine can also enjoy this game and cover the Investigation and Experimentation standards at their grade level.


Specific objectives include the following:


  • The learner will be able to identify daily water uses and practices within a typical family/household.
  • The learner will be able to understand the numerous ways in which water can be conserved throughout the home.
  • The learner will be able to identify good water use principles and make decisions about water conservation habits and devices.

Learners & Context of Use

This game is a fun and effective way for teachers and families to acquaint middle school aged children with water conservation.  The game targets grades six through nine (ages 11 and up) and allows for play within a classroom or at home with the whole family.  It turns the idea of water conservation, a concept not readily embraced by middle school students due to habits that are difficult for all of us to adapt to, into an entertaining competition to see who can be most successful at conserving water and win the game.


Ideally, students would receive instruction on the importance of water conservation and tips on how to achieve it.  This game, however, is designed so that a student’s prior knowledge of typical household water use would be satisfactory preparation to play this game.  It can be played more than once, at home or school without having to modify either the game equipment or rules.  After the game is over, a follow-up discussion about the water conservation choices the students made would help reinforce concepts learned in the game and facilitate knowledge transfer to modify actual daily water use behavior in the home.

Object of the Game

Water is a precious resource that is essential to all living things, yet only 1% of the earth's water is drinkable. This is why it’s so important to conserve this resource.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to go through a day and not waste water in some way. In this game, you are a member of a household. Your goal is to navigate through a house and collect a water-saving device and a water-saving habit from each room without wasting all of your water.  You will be given 50 drops of water to start the game with, which should be enough, if you make the right decisions.

The winner is the first player to return to their Start space with at least one Device Card and one Habit Card from each room of the house, as well as at least one “drop in the bucket” remaining.

Game Materials & Set-Up


·         Game Board

·         Four game pieces (toilet, washing machine, sink, and hose)

·         Four buckets, one for each player to hold their water drops

·         Four sets of Habit Cards and four sets of Device Cards, one for each room

·         Four decks of Choose to Conserve Cards

·         One deck of Tip Cards

·         One six-sided die

·         Two hundred water drops

The game board is divided into the rooms of household that account for the majority of a family’s water usage: Bathroom, Kitchen, Laundry Room & Plumbing, and Lawn/Garden. The size of each room and the spaces around are representative of the actual amount of water wasted in that room for an average family throughout a typical day. When you land on a space, you must follow the instructions appropriate for that space.


There are 6 types of board spaces:

·         Device space: If a player lands on this space, he or she must try to answer a Choose to Conserve question for that specific room. If the player answers the question correctly, he or she receives a Device Card. The player to the left of the roller should ask the question that is on the card. If a player answers incorrectly, play continues and he or she must move off the space on their next turn. Players may acquire more than one Device or Habit Card from each room if they land on the space multiple times.






·         Habit space:  Just like a Device space, but the player gets a Habit Card if he or she correctly answers the question.




·         Draw a Tip Card space: A player who lands on this space draws the next card from the Tip Card pile. The player may use one of these cards on an upcoming turn to move their game piece in lieu of rolling the die.




·         Random Event space: When a player lands on one of these spaces, they need to follow the instructions on the space.

·         Doorway: These spaces require no action and allow players passage into the next room.

·         Start space: These spaces also require no action and show players where to place their pieces to start the game.

Setting up the Game:

1.      Place each of the four decks of Choose to Conserve Cards and the one deck of Tip Cards in the places designated on the board.

2.      Place all of the Device and Habit Cards in separate piles within each room of its matching color.

3.      Each player starts the game on a pre-determined spot. A player’s Start space depends upon the game piece that they have chosen to play with. (Example: Player with the game piece in the shape of a toilet starts on the blue Start space in the bathroom).  After play begins, Start spaces are valid spaces to land on.

4.      Each player starts the game with 50 drops of water in their bucket.

Time Required

This game takes only a couple minutes to set up.  Playing the game requires approximately one to one and a half hours that could be played all at once or split into two play periods.

The Rules

1.      Players roll the die to see who goes first. Highest roll goes first, then play passes to the left (clockwise).

2.      Players take turn rolling the die and must move their game piece the number of spaces indicated by the die. Players may move in any one direction and may visit any room multiple times throughout the game.

3.      No two players can occupy the same space. If during their turn a player cannot move to an unoccupied space, their turn is over.

4.      Players must land on a space exactly in order to follow the directions on that space.

5.      As players move around the board, they must follow the directions on the game spaces (see explanation of board game spaces in Game Materials and Set-Up section above) while trying to get Habit and Device Cards. 

6.      On any given turn, if a player has a Tip Card, he or she may use it to move instead of rolling the die (on the back of each card is a movement option) in order to land exactly on a desired space. Players cannot roll the die and then decide to use this card. They must decide to use before they roll the die.

7.      Players may move from room to room through doorways only.

8.      Running Out of Water:
, as the result of an event that occurs in the game, a player runs out of drops of water, they may trade in one of their Device or Habit Cards for additional drops of water (each card is worth the number of water drops shown on that card). This allows them to continue playing. Players may try to obtain more than the required number of Habit or Device Cards in order to save them up in case they are needed later to trade in for water drops. Players who run out of water drops and do not have a Device or Habit Card to trade in are out of the game. 

9.      Once a player has at least one Habit and one Device Card from each room, as well as drops of water left in his or her bucket, the player should move towards their start space.  When the player lands on it exactly with at least one drop in the bucket left, he or she wins the game. 

Design Process

The design process was a combination of inspiration, theory, and dialogue of the design team members. We went through three to four different iterations of the game. The process began by immersing ourselves in the content of water conservation. Key content areas were categorized to overlay components of the game.  The five P's (pieces, patterns, paths, prizes, principles) were finalized and discussion of the design of the board followed.  Theories and design principles guiding this development were Functional Context Theory (Sticht, 1987) and Situated Learning (Lave, 1990).  Principles of design that influenced us were use of multiple modalities, repetition, and use of real-life scenarios (Fleming & Levie, 1993).  

The original focus of design efforts was a traditional race game such as the game of Life.  We brainstormed and did some trial and error on a whiteboard.  However, this design scheme seemed less representative of reality.  This led to the focus on locations in the household where waste occurs and to the concept of rooms of a house similar to Clue.  We felt this design was a more realistic representation of how water is actually used in a household and would allow learners to have appropriate cues to action when in these actual rooms in their own house.  We used the guiding theories and the content sites such as EPA to guide us.  We searched for similar water conservation games and found content but not specific board games.  Some called themselves games but were not games at all but simply guided tours.

Throughout our board we developed spaces that made conservation difficult.  We wanted the players to understand the implication of choices and random events on water consumption.  Furthermore, we wanted to enhance the affective state of valuing water as a resource.  To simplify the rules we tried to put as many directions for play on the board itself.  Movement around the board was developed to give freedom of decisions for the players to represent the multiple choices available in water conservation.  The requirement to always have water to keep playing is designed to show how activities can hinder this ability and the importance of water in our daily life.  We did additional trial testing by bouncing the game off of spouses, coworkers, or whomever we could find.  After multiple iterations of the game, once we felt we had a playable prototype we played the game ourselves to see if we enjoyed playing, which we did.  We felt that we achieved Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

The spaces were developed as they are for very specific reasons.  The waste spaces explain various causes of water waste with relatively proportional amounts of water based on each scenario.  All Waste spaces are designed to show that the actions of individuals can impact the whole household.  Tip spaces are designed to provide the players another choice in movement and to enhance playability by reducing the number of rolls needed to land on habit/device spaces.  Additionally, the requirement that the tip be read aloud adds an audio modality.  Acquiring the tip cards allows the learner to value having appropriate water saving methods.   Device/Habit spaces allow the player to acquire tokens required to win the game while the criticality in acquiring these tokens enhances their value to the player.  The presence of both devices and habits shows the different types of ways to save water.  The information on the back of the cards provides more in-depth content on amounts of water saved or lost by various habits or devices.  It also puts those amounts in the context of alternate uses of the same amounts of water.  There are fewer habits than devices on the board to mimic the reality that obtaining a device may cost money, but is generally easier to acquire a device than develop new habits.  Chance/Random Event spaces serve to add fun and unpredictability to the game.  Additionally, some of the spaces enhance the playability of the game by speeding movement from room to room.  Additionally, these spaces reflect the reality that some waste results from chance events.

Lessons learned: 
It’s an iterative process.  Compromises will be necessary.  No game is perfect.  A whiteboard is a crucial piece of equipment in the design phase. The game wants to get more complex than it should be.  Be diligent about streamlining.  The more prototype testing the better.



Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Sticht, T., et al. (1987). Cast-off Youth: Policy and Training Methods from the Military Experience. New York: Praeger.


Fleming, M. & Levie, W.H. (1993). Instructional Message Design.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications.


California Department of Education.  “Science Framework For California Public Schools.” California Department of Education: Curriculum and Instruction: Curricular Frameworks and Instructional Materials: Science Framework. 7 Oct. 2004. http://www.cde.ca.gov/re/pn/fd/sci-frame-dwnld.asp


City of Salem.  “Facts About Water Use” City of
Salem Public Works Operations. 9 Oct. 2004.


Environmental Protection Agency.  How to conserve water and use it effectively.  Retrieved on 9/26/04 from http://www.epa.gov/water/you/chap3.html


Fleming, M. & Levie, W.H. (1993). Instructional Message Design.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications.


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Sticht, T., et al. (1987). Cast-off Youth: Policy and Training Methods from the Military Experience. New York: Praeger.


Thomson-Brooks/Cole Publishing.  “What Can You Do To Reduce Water Waste?”  Living In The Environment Environmental Science Textbook Companion. 29 Sept. 2004. http://www.brookscole.com/cgi-wadsworth


Water - Use It Wisely.  “100 Water-Saving Tips.” Water – Use It Wisely: 100 Ways To Save Water And Counting. 30 Sept. 2004. http://www.wateruseitwisely.com/100ways/sw.html


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Last updated October 9 2004