The Systems Game


Systems thinking is an important concept in both the physical and social sciences. It requires an understanding of the various parts and subparts of a system in order to understand the relationships within the whole.  In this game, students either are a part of a system or serve as scientists tasked with observing and making sense of the system's motion rule that it's "parts" are following.  


  • This activity was written and adapted by Teresa Eastburn of the UCAR Center for Science Education in the early 2000s. Variations of the activity have been used in both formal and informal settings for many years although rarely in science until Eastburn's adaptation.  The original author of the game is unknown. Many date the growth of systems thinking back to the work of Jay Forrester, a professor at MIT in 1956 whose research advanced the field of system dynamics.

Grade Level

  • This activity is most suitable for students in both middle and high schools. To use this activity with younger students, simplify the rule that is given to students. For example, students can be instructed to walk five steps then fold and unfold their arms repeatably. Avoiding the word "system" and instead instructing participants that they must uncover the motion rule that the participants are following is also helpful before discussing the concept of systems thinking when it is developmentally appropriate to do so.

Time Required

  • Two 50-minute class periods to allow for adequate preparation in advance of the activity and reflection following it.

       Teacher Preparation Time

  • Minimal preparation is necessary, however, a big space such as a gym, playing field, or playground is required with cones deliniating the play  area's boundaries. Using too small of a space can negatively impact the success of the activity. Using too big of a space can also inhibit the game's success. As a rule of thumb, a square 35 feet x 35 feet is a good size for a class of 30 students.

       Class Time

  • 30 minutes for activity (on an ongoing basis if desired until the system's rule is determined)
  • 20 minutes before and after for discussion, reflection, and assessment


Student Learning Objectives

  • Students will discuss and experience the underlying characteristics of a system.
  • Students will identify various systems that are natural, mechanical, or social in their lives. 
  • Students will be able to explain how understanding a system can help us find solutions to complex problems that allows us to consider the impact of our actions on various parts of a system.

Lesson Format

  • hands-on activity
  • kinesthetic activity

Science Education Standards Addressed

Next Generation Science Standards

Crosscutting concepts have value because they provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the differing areas of disciplinary content and can enrich their application of practices and their understanding of core ideas. — Framework p. 233

  • Systems and system models are one of the seven crosscutting concepts identified in the Next Generation Science Standards. NGSS states that "Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering."



Materials Needed

  • A large area inside or outside that will allow enough room for the system’s motion,
  • Cones, rope, or verbal instructions to define the area in which the activity will occur,
  • A minimum of 10 students but ideally 15 to 25, with approximately 1/5th of the students serving as "scientists.


Teacher Preparations

1.   About systems…      

  • Present and survey students' knowledge about systems and systems thinking through class discussion.  (System examples could include: one's body with its circulatory system, nervous system, endocrine system, skeletal system, etc.; a car; a family; a highway system....)  
  • Encourage students to brainstorm examples of other systems and their subsystems. 
  • Ask the students if they see any defining features across all systems? 
  • Are systems always natural in orgin or can they be mechanical?  Can they be human in orgin?
  • Allow enough time to foster a basic understanding of systems and their defining features.
  • Ask students: Why might an understanding of a system be helpful when solving a problem identified within it? 

Introduce the Activity and its Various Steps             

  • Explain to the students that they are going to be asked to observe or be part of a system. 

  • Assign one-fifth of the students to be “scientists” or ask for volunteers to fill this role.  Tell the remaining students that they will collectively comprise the system that will be studied by the scientists. (If the instructor choses to avoid the word "system", she or he should simply tell the students that they must identify a motion rule that the group will follow.)

  • Separate the scientists from the remaining students so that they are unable to hear the instructions specifically given to the students comprising the system. While the two groups are separated, give each group their instructions and answer any ensuing questions. (See below for instructions.)

Instruction for Students Playing a Part within the System 

  • Explain that all of the students will be a system in motion and will move in a manner that may appear complex or random from an observer’s point-of-view.  However,  this particular system will follow a set “rule” that the scientists will be trying to identify. 

  • Ask the students to randomly choose any two classmates who are also playing parts of the system.  It is not necessary for them to share this information with their fellow classmates or the two classmates they have chosen. 

  • Next, tell each student or part of the system that he or she will move to keep an equal distance at all times from the two classmates that he or she has identified. (For younger students, a less complex “motion rule” can be substituted.)

  • Ensure that all students understand that this does not mean that they will remain in a straight line between their chosen subjects, but that the physical shape of their relationship with their chosen two parts will fluctuate from linear to triangular in appearance.  They should also note that their chosen parts have chosen their own parts of the system to follow. 

  • Use three classmates to demonstrate the various arrangements that are possible when students follow the given “rule” as shown below.The dots in the diagram below represent students playing a subpart of the system. It is important to note that while the red "part" of the system is correctly following the motion rule, the black "parts" will likewise be following the rule with two other dots that he or she has chosen. 

  • Tell the students that they are to remain in constant motion within the confines of the defined space for the length of the activity, although their motion will randomly accelerate and slow down naturally. In other words, they should know that they must keep moving.

  • Lastly, practice the system once or twice before bringing in the scientists to observe.

  • Note: Before starting the game, clarify what should happen if someone can no longer follow the motion rule (described below) when/if parts of the system are removed from it by the scientists. One possibility is that those who are impacted  must stand still because they cannot follow the rule. This means that they stand still while the unaffected parts of the system continue to move about them.  If the part is returned to the system, those impacted prior from its removal can now resume their motion with its return. Scientists should not be told what will happen when parts are removed or returned to the system.)

 Instructions for Students Playing the Scientists

  • Explain to the  scientists that they will be roleplaying, observing a system, and defining the principle or “rule” that governs the system's  motion.  Convey that while the system appears complex from the outside,  it is operating in a manner that can be studied and understood through observation. It is NOT a thing; it is only a group of parts following a motion rule. 
  • Instruct the scientists that the game will be halted every 2-3 minutes to give them an opportunity to ask “Yes/No/Maybe” questions that can inform their observations and advance their theories. They may choose to record the various questions and how it was answered, but the choose is their's to make.
  • After initial observations, encourage the scientists to work collaboratively if they have not been working together. Ask them to adopt strategies that will increase their collective success such as sharing any patterns they observe and brainstorming questions to ask that may be helpful to identifying the system's motion rule.
  • Other actions that scientists may find helpful after they have had an opportunity to study the sytem a few times include:
    • walking through the system while it’s in motion;  
    • removing a part or parts of the system and observing what happens;
    • returning a part(s) of a system one by one that has been removed from it in order to see what happens when the part is returned.

  Begin the Activity

  • Designate an area within the scientists will observe the system and a separate area nearby in which the system will operate/move. 
  • Begin the activity with a gentle push of a few of the parts within the system in order to set it in motion.

  • Approximately every 3 minutes, stop the system and allow the scientists to ask questions that will ellicit a  “Yes,"No,”  or "Maybe" response from their classmates in the system.  Listen to ensure that the answers are accurate.

  • Allow the scientists to experiment with the system by walking through it, or isolating a part or parts of it, then observing its response. Have them return the part to the system and see what happens as well.

  • If the scientists are allowed to experiment with the system as above,  remember that students who are no longer able to follow the “rule” should stand still.  If a part is not impacted, then that part should continue to follow the motion rule as before.

  • After an appropriate amount of time for the scientists to observe and study the system in motion, give the scientists time to make their last predictions of the rule under which the system is moving. 

  • Stop the exercise regardless if the scientists have been able to explain the system's motion rule or not.  Explain to the scientists that just like real research, many systems can remain a mystery for years to centuries. Complex systems are inherently difficult to understand. We stand on the shoulders of many scientific giants who have studied a given system in order to understand its rules, as well as many engineers who have designed systems that have improved our lives.  

Reflection and Assessment

Ask the students the following questions:

  • What was their experience like as part of the system?  Their reflections are likely to uncover many of the common components found in a system (i.e. interdependence of the parts, feedbacks, dynamic, self regulating...) and lead into rich conversations about observable characteristics of a system.  
  • What was their experience like as one of the scientists? Their reflections are likely to uncover feelings of frustration and puzzlement when trying to unravel the defining features of a complex system.  Many of these emotions are commonly held by researchers in search of answers to scientific questions.  In fact some scientists often spend many years of their professional lives trying to unravel a particular system or a part of a system to advance scientific understanding.  Likewise, engineers can spend many years working on a design to benefit humankind and/or solve a problem.
  • Ask the students: 
  • How did working independently or collaboratively impact the scientists' work? How might working independently or collaboratively impact the work of actual scientists?
  • Where was your attention focused in either role? Did you focus on the system as a whole or in its parts?
  • Ask the scientists how hard it was to remember that the parts were simply following a motion rule and where not in fact a defined system? Often, our brains are programmed to identify objects and given them meaning, even when we are told many times that you must only solve for the system's motion rule.

Background & Extensions

Systems and Systems Thinking

A system is an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. The “whole” can be mechanical, social, temporal, natural, numerical, physcial, or even idealogical, but it will also have various parts or subsystems that are interrelated and interdependent. In other words, the parts of a system continually influence one another directly or indirectly to carry out the system’s function or goal. Examples include a car engine with its various menchanical parts, a family with its small or large number of members,  a subway system with its many routes, or a political system with its various structures and laws of governance.  It is only our capacity to compehend the complexity of an observed entity that limits our understanding of the unending number of systems we see and/or play a part within, and how these systems work.

All systems have certain characteristics, in common. Each has inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms; and each maintains an internal steady-state (homeostatis) despite what happens in its external enviroment. As mentioned prior, a system also has many parts that are interrelated and interdependent.  If a part is removed or changed in some capacity, the whole system can be altered, or in extreme cases even destroyed. Despite the fact that systems look quite different from one another on the surface, they in fact have remarkable similarities. Some are closed systems with solid boundaries that exist in a self-sufficient state. Open systems have permeable boundaries with inputs and outputs that allow the system to interact with their external enviroments.  

Analyzing and thinking in terms of systems is an essential component in the study of all science disciplines.  As stated in the National Science Standards*, students can develop an understanding of regularities in systems, and by extension, the universe; they then can develop understanding of basic laws, theories, and models that explain the world.  

* National Research Council. (1996). The National Science Education Standards, p. 116.