Structured Role-Plays and Simulations

Helping students think more deeply

Let me take you back a few years to a classroom on the outskirts of Leeds. My class are in the midst of a structured role-play. The room is set out like a tableau consisting of three groups of people.

Over on the left, wearing tabards which show the names of the people they’re representing, are Edward IV and a group of leading Yorkist nobles.

On the other side of the room – in France – are the exiled Lancastrian king Henry VI, his queen Margaret of Anjou and their son Prince Edward. Alongside them is the King of France.

In another part of the room is the Duke of Burgundy, enemy of France and potential ally of the Yorkist Edward IV.

In the middle of the room/tableau is Matthew who represents the earl of Warwick – the so-called kingmaker. Matthew faces the biggest decision of Warwick’s life. He has just rebelled against Edward IV for the second time and is now on the run from the king’s forces. What should he do? Throw himself on the mercy of a king he’s betrayed twice? Flee to France where his other enemies, the Lancastrians, are now influential – and they too see Warwick as a traitor, the man most responsible for them losing the English crown? Or could he go to Burgundy – where King Edward’s sister is the Duke’s wife?

At this point, Matthew, a very bright student, commented:

‘None of these options are good ones. I don’t want to do any of them – I’ll be in danger whichever I choose.’

It was a really important moment for all the students, realising that people in the past often had to choose a risky option, the ‘least-worst’ option, rather than having an obvious good option staring them in the face.

From my teacher’s perspective the important question was ‘could students have understood this as well if I’d explained it to them in a different way, by telling them the story of Warwick’s career or by asking them to read about it in a book?’ I’m very clear that the answer is that they understood and remembered the issues and events far, far better because we used the structured role-play – it provided a physical and visual dimension because the different groups were spaced out around the room which clarified Matthew’s choices in role as Warwick. We also had the opportunity to discuss the options as a group – in such role-plays we often paused the action to talk over options – before I explained which option Warwick too. We always stayed with the real historical narrative even if we had floated counterfactual possibilities. And even if Matthew hadn’t voiced his thoughts on the unsuitability of each option I would have introduced that point in my role as teacher and ring master of events – in my plan for the session I’d noted that if ‘Warwick’ made a clear, rapid choice I would interrogate him as to why and what he saw as the advantages and disadvantages of that choice. I could also bring in other students to comment too.

By way of concluding this introduction I’ll add this example is from my teaching of a final year undergraduate class – not perhaps the normal context for this kind of teaching. However my experience had shown me that the university students benefitted hugely from this kind of structured role-play. But it’s just as true that students at KS2 and KS3 benefit in the same ways – the same techniques are just as effective with all ages as my activity Je suis le roi demonstrated, another activity I devised for undergraduates but is widely used with Year 7 students. These kinds of activity are, in my view, an essential tool in any teacher’s kitbag – the rest of this article explains more about how they can be structured and why they are so valuable.

Structured Role-Plays and Simulations: The Full Article

In addition to the example (above) I've described this technique in more detail in a PDF, which also covers:

• Helping students think more deeply

• What do we call them? Defining Structured Role-plays and Simulations

• What can students learn from these activities?

• Examples of activities on the structure role-play to simulation continuum

Download the PDF HERE …


The Process of Creating Structured Role-Plays

Some years ago I set out the process of creating a structured role‑play in the form of a diagram, and I've included it here in case it helps you devise your own.


Click on the thumbnail image alongside to see the full diagram.



Some Examples of
Structured Role-Plays and Simulations on this Website


Boudicca’s rebellion HERE …


Re-enacting the Sutton Hoo burial HERE …


The battle of Hastings – decisions on the spur of the moment HERE …


Je suis le roi – what happened after 1066? HERE …


The beginnings of the Wars of the Roses 1452-1455 HERE …


Holy Box and the altar table – 16th century religious changes HERE …


Arteries, Veins and Capillaries – what Harvey couldn’t see! HERE …


Lister’s antiseptic spray HERE …


The failure of the Schlieffen plan 1914 HERE …


… and many more!


And note:

You can also watch examples of these types of activity on YouTube HERE ...

Top of the page



This Technique

Download the Full Article

See the process diagram

Example Activities