Shape Up

by Laura Malone

Laura is about to finish her stint through the Ed Tech graduate program. She is currently working as a designer and graphic artist on Project VISTA (described below). Her goal is to design and develop computer-based interactive materials. She has no spare time, but she enjoys painting, running 3 1/2 miles a day, and trying to keep her dog Ursa mentally stimulated.

Instructional Objective The learners shall be able to identify simple shapes embedded within complex figures.

Learners/Context Children aged 6-8 can play this game either in the classroom or at home. More complex versions of the game will be developed for older children. It is intended to be used as one of a collection of K-8 science "enrichment" activities to enhance visual-spatial thinking ability.

Visual-spatial thinking ability is critical to success in many disciplines, including science. While not all children (especially girls) excell at visual-spatial thinking, research has indicated that it can be learned, like any other skill. The National Science Foundation has funded Project VISTA to develop a program of activities for K-8 children that will strengthen visual-spatial ability within the context of science curriculum. The grant also specifies that research will be conducted to determine the extent to which the activities do, in fact, improve visual-spatial thinking.

Visual-spatial thinking can be conceived of as a hierarchically organized group of skills, with the more basic abilites enabling the more sophisticated. On the most elementary level one must be able to perceive visual phenomena. Once one can perceive visual-spatial qualities, one can remember them. Holding visual images in mind, one can then logically manipulate them. Finally, one can imagine unique visual-spatial orientations or situations. This is how much scientific invention or problem solving occurs.


Various tests have been developed to measure visual-spatial abilities. This card game is based on the content from one particular spatial ability measured by these tests: figure-ground discrimination (more commonly known as "embedded figures tests")These tests measure the ability to find geometric figures embedded within a visually complex image. This is an ability at the perceptual level of visual-spatial thinking. In addition, the card game requires a child to recognize a shape as the same when it is rotated, a logical visual-spatial skill.

Visual-spatial thinking activities lend themselves naturally to a card game format because visual content is easy to display on cards. The card game can serve three useful purposes. First, it is a fun way to provide practice at visual spatial perceptual skills. Second, it provides a structure for practicing visual-spatial memory skills: since the cards are difficult to look at all at one time players are more successful at playing the game if they can keep visual images of the cards they have and the cards they need in mind. A third advantage the card-game format offers is that it provides a means for measuring differences in this visual-spatial skill before and after practice with the game. This data will be useful for the research aspect of the project.

Process This card game will be one of several which provide practice in the various a visual-spatial abilities that are frequently tested. Like all activities being developed for Project VISTA , the game is designed to be able to stand alone, although the teacher should make every effort to relate the content to his or her science curriculum. For example, the concept of perceiving hidden figures could be related to a unit on camouflage. The classroom should have several copies of the game to ensure that everyone has a chance to play.

For Project VISTA research, a figure-ground pretest should be given to the students before they play the card game. This will also introduce them to the content before they play, which should make it easier for them to concentrate on learning the rules of the game when they play for the first time. After a controlled number of experiences with the game a post-test should be given to determine whether spatial ability improved. The pre and post tests should also be given to a control group.

The rules of the game are not too difficult for six year olds, but the game should be demonstrated by an adult, as it is not based on games with which children are familiar. There are three versions of the game: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. Once the beginning deck has been mastered, players should move on to the intermediate deck. Older children may want to begin with the intermediate or advanced version. The intermediate and advanced decks are played with the same rules but the embedded figures are more difficult to perceive.

Card DesignThe game consists of two decks of cards: 26 complex shape cards (the square cards) and 40 simple shape cards (the rectagular cards).Complex "square cards"Simple "shape cards"

The simple shapes can be combined to form the complex shapes. For example, the above four simple shapes combine to form the complex shape in the square card.

The complex shape cards are square for two reasons. First, this makes it easire for the children to recognize that the cards (and therefore the figures) can be viewed from any angle. Rectangular cards seem to indicate that cards should be viewed "upright". Second, if the two decks are different shapes it should be easier to keep them separated. I considered designing the simple shape cards with miniature copies of a given card's shape in the top left corner to make the card easier to find when held in a hand. I decided that, contrary to standard card design principles, it would be better not to have such a visual aid: visual-spatial memory skills would more likely be used if the players couldn't easily see the cards.

There are two copies of each complex shape in the deck; two cards with the identical complex shape may appear on the table at the same time.

There is also a transparent sheet on which all the simple shapes are printed:

This is meant to be used to settle challenges. (See rule #5 for how to use this sheet.) Children who are first learning the game may want to use it as an aid during play. This is OK at first, but the content of the game is not mastered until it can be played without relying on the transparency, except to settle disputes.

Rules Two - Four players.

The object of the game is to create "shape sets". A set is made by collecting all the shapes contained within one of the square cards. Each shape in a set is worth one point. The player who has used the most shapes (not sets) at the end of the game wins; that is, sets containing more shapes are worth more points.

The game is played in the following manner:

1. Decide whether you will play to 26, 13 or six sets. Thirteen sets takes about 45 minutes; younger children may only want to play six if there are two players. Twenty-six sets can take more than an hour. Only older children on rainy days should try to play to 26 sets.

2. Choose one person to be responsible for each deck of cards. The person in charge of the (rectangular) "shape cards" shuffles and deals five cards to each player, placing the remaining cards face down for drawing during play. The person in charge of the "square cards" shuffles and places them in a stack on the table. (S)he takes the first four cards from the top of the deck and places them face-up, side-by-side, on the table. Each time a square card is won from the table, the "square card dealer" is responsible for replacing it with a new card from the stack.

3. The person to the left of the "shape card dealer" goes first. If a player cannot make a set (s)he has two options: 1) (s)he may ask for a new card and it becomes the other player's turn, or, 2) (s)he may trade in any number of cards in her hand for new cards. If (s)he trades in two cards, (s)he gets back three: two trade-ins, plus one new card. Cards can only be traded in when a player cannot win any sets in a given turn. It then becomes the next players turn.

If (s)he can make a set (s)he calls "shape set!" and places the shape cards below the matching square card for inspection by the other player(s). If the other players do not challenge the set, she "wins the set": she keeps her square cards in a pile for tallying points at the end of the game. That set's shape cards are placed face down in a new pile for recycling should the players run out of shape cards before the end of the game (which they most likely will). The shape card dealer is responsible for both of these piles. Each time the draw pile is exhausted, the recycling pile becomes the new draw pile. This pile is not ever shuffled! A player cannot ask for more cards than are left in the draw pile.

Each time a square card is won a new one is placed face-up on the table by the square card dealer. Each player's turn continues until (s)he can't create any more sets. At that point (s)he asks the dealer for a new card and it becomes the next player's turn.

4. Play continues until the specified number of square cards (six, thirteen or twenty-six) have been won. At this point the game is over and points are tallied. The player who's square cards contain the most total shapes wins the game.

5. Challenges: If a set is called and an opposing player wants to contest the set (s)he calls "shape up!". The transparency can be used to resolve disputes by placing the outlines of the (simple) shapes on the film over the shapes on the square card to see if they match. If the challenger is correct, (s)he wins the square card. If more than one player challenges and wins, all challengers who called "shape up" collect points. (The number of shapes in the contested set can be recorded on paper with the winners names. )If the challenge was incorrect, each challenger has to surrender a square card from his or her stock pile. If (s)he doesn't yet have a stockpile (s)he owes the opponent a square card.

6. Duplicate square cards. If two duplicate square cards appear on the table at the same time and a player can make a set with one, (s)he gets to take both cards. If (s)he fails to pick up both cards and the opponent player notices, the opponent may claim the duplicate square card.

Design Process The inspiration for the game came from the embedded figures tests used to measure children's visual-spatial thinking abilities. A stimulus in the form of a complex shape or figure is presented along with a series of simpler forms. The simple shapes have to be located within the complex figure.

After developing the initial idea for the game I created a rapid prototype for field testing: the two decks and the transparency sheet. I decided to use the transparency sheet as an aid not only because it seemed a more elegant way to resolve disputes than a "cheat sheet", but because it would encourage the children to verbalize what they saw with each other.

I played the game through a number of times to develop the rules as well as the materials. One challenge I faced was to match the difficulty level of the rules with the difficulty level of the content.

The main question that came up regarding the materials was how many cards in should be in each deck. I discovered that it was necessary that all simple shapes appear an equal number of times in the complex shape deck. I made three shape cards for each square card, since the average number of simple shapes to occur in a square card was three.

Originally, when players won a set they kept the entire set in their stock pile. I ran into a problem with the simple shape cards running out before the complex shapes were all used. I tried a number of things to resolve this problem, including creating a discard process as part of the game, and allowing players to ask each other for cards. I felt it was getting too complicated, so I decided to field test it without these changes with two boys, aged six and eight, to see what other problems might occur and if they had any ideas for a solution.

I was relieved to find that the boys both found the game fun and challenging. The older boy asked me when he could play it again! They were both able to grasp the rules. The younger boy found the game quite challenging and tired more quickly, but they both played through to the end (which was originally 26 square cards -- this took 1 1/2 hours!) I asked the eight-year-old if it was too easy and he said, no, it was "medium".

The older boy also suggested the solution to my problem with running out of shape cards: recycle the cards that have already been played. We tried this and it worked. In the process of playing, we also invented the duplicate card rule.

Two additional questions were answered in the field trials. I had wondered whether the transparency would be adequate to resolve disputes -- and it was. The younger boy wanted to use the transparency as an aid, which I allowed at first and then discouraged. I think six year olds should probably be allowed to use it as part of the game, at least initially.

I was also concerned that the players would have more cards in their hands than they could manage. Although they did sometimes have many cards in their hands (and on the table -- they both spontaneously developed a strategy of organizing the cards in their hands in piles below the square cards) they never appeared to become overloaded cognitively. Still, I felt this was the biggest flaw in the game -- it is simply in-elegant to play with so many cards ! The last modification I made to the rules was to allow players to trade in cards. Since it was often more strategic to get rid of shape cards one couldn't use to win the currently displayed square cards, players tended to trade cards in and keep their hand sizes down. This added an additional element of strategy to the game, however, since a card that is turned in might be needed after the next shape set is won. For this reason I decided that the recycle pile should not be shuffled. Players who could exercise their visual memory by recalling where certain shapes were in the pile would have a strategic advantage.