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Science > Botany


Students use this digital game to conduct research on and articulate the process of plant photosynthesis.

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PlayMaker School


Reach for the Sun is an interactive simulation game where players are tasked with growing a plant to maturity and producing as many seeds as possible before the coming winter. In order to achieve the healthiest plant and the highest seed yield, players must oversee the plant’s photosynthetic process, which means maintaining the plant’s water, starch, and nutrient levels. It also means managing how the plant grows by spending resources to grow roots, stems, leaves, or flowers.

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Experience breakdown

Reach for the Sun in Class

Lesson Plan OVERVIEW

We saw great value in Reach for the Sun in teaching plant reproduction and plant pollination, along with its ability to demonstrate systems of plant growth and the relationship between the root structures, leaf structures, flowering structures, and pollination. To complement the game’s features, we created a curriculum around the game using a new system we call Play-Research-Present Curriculum. In this approach, we put students into teams, with each student having the role of player, strategist, researcher, or note taker. Students rotated through these roles and played through the game while researching vocabulary, concepts, and processes. Students then presented their game play to the whole class and leveraged the play to explain what they learned.


Students work in teams as they play the game without explicit instruction, make observations, research the process of photosynthesis, and use key terms to articulate the process during the course of the game.

Learning Objectives

  • Develop working vocabulary to understand plant reproduction, photosynthesis, and the resources plants need to survive.
  • Conduct research through playing the game and using its almanac to increase the virtual plant's reproduction.
  • Articulate key terms and processes as they occur during the course of the game.

Lesson Steps

Stage one of this learning system is Play. The game is played in a mode where there are no directions, and nothing is explained. Instead, you begin to play through the system and the game prompts you with vocabulary words and visual cues. We divided students into four groups of nine and then created individual roles within these groups. Students rotate through the various roles during the Play learning session, so everyone gets a taste of each experience.  

There are four learning roles in all: the player, the wingman, the researcher, and the scribe. The player manipulates the computer mouse and controls the game play on screen.  It is the player who first encounters the sunflower’s baby sprout awaiting water for its roots.  Three tubes on the side display measurements for water, nutrients, and starch, which fluctuate according to the player’s actions. Immediately, the player from each group explores the reactions between water and carbon dioxide from the air, and the plant’s stem begins to grow taller. The wingman works directly with the player, but is mostly focused on strategic advice, much like a backseat driver. This first phase is all about allowing students to explore the game components and test different reactions and methods to make their sunflower grow.


Students form teams and play Reach for the Sun.

Stage two of this learning system is Research. After initial exploration, students quickly realize that they need to investigate and gather information to make better informed decisions. Designated researchers look up every concept, process, vocabulary word, or procedure that the team doesn’t understand in the game.  PlayMaker students perform research with classroom iPads, and other research tools could include computers, science textbooks, or encyclopedias. Scribes then record all research findings and document the group’s progress, which will then be shared in the final presentation rounds. One student writes, “The scientific way to say sunflower is inflorescence.  Cool, right?” These discoveries are captured and then shared with the rest of the team. 

Another student writes, “The plant starts to grow up and gain more roots. We put vertical stems on top.  Now we’re getting leaves. I think we’re doing well! Blight is a disease, and we got it.  We died . . .” As plants died, students would restart the game, using their prior mistakes as learning opportunities to do better in the next round. The goal of the game is to grow the most complex plant, as well as to move through the level and create the most flowering and pollination that students possibly can. Being able to do this demonstrates mastery of the process.


Using Wikipedia and other resources, students gather background knowledge to succeed in the game.

Students prove their knowledge when they Present in the third stage of the learning system. They gather in the center of the room around a large floor projection of the game produced by the SMALLab technology platform, and each team must then play through the system in front of their peers. This Present piece is an evolution of our exhibition model that we used with sandboxes. The team that is able to grow the most complex plants and articulate the most acquired knowledge is the winner.

Our ultimate goal with this Play-Research-Present Curriculum process is to have kids be very focused and research-oriented in a playful way. The peer-to-peer facilitation builds collaboration and problem-solving skills as well. Reach for the Sun game play may be extended to a variety of plant species and is a beautiful way to learn about a plant’s lifecycle. PlayMaker kids sped off that Friday afternoon with leaf primordia and floral buds in their heads – a perfect way to kick off Spring Break. Cool, right?


Students present their research findings to their peers and compete to see which team has the knowledge and ability to grow the most elaborate garden.


Common Core - English Language Arts

Speaking and Listening
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
Science & Technical subjects
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant togrades 9–10 texts and topics.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.5 Analyze the structure of the relationships among concepts in a text, including relationships among key terms (e.g., force, friction, reaction force, energy).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.7 Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words.

ISTE NETS - Digital Age Skills

1. Creativity and Innovation
Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
Use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues
2. Communication and Collaboration
Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.
Contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems
3. Research and Information Fluency
Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.
Plan strategies to guide inquiry
Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media
Evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks
Process data and report results
4. Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.
Identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation
Plan and manage activities to develop a solution or complete a project
Collect and analyze data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions
Use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions
topic discussion
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