Exploring virtual Roman worlds during lockdown

By Siobhán Morgan. Posted

When lockdown put a stop to the weekly Minecraft club at Siobhán Morgan’s school, they rebooted it remotely, and pupils explored virtual Roman worlds of Bath and Exeter

After we introduced our popular lunchtime Minecraft club at the start of the current academic year, Exeter Junior School went into lockdown. It was an advantage that pupils were already familiar with Minecraft, which we had been practising in the club, and knew how to use it. The pupils’ experiences with Minecraft, and their enthusiasm for it, meant that it made sense to provide an opportunity for them to connect from home. By the time we set up our virtual club, pupils had already become accustomed to using technology in different ways and were regularly engaging in video conferencing software through Google Meet. It therefore seemed viable to add in Minecraft, a familiar piece of software. Other than a few technical issues, everyone adapted fantastically to using it from home. Restarting our club as a weekly event throughout lockdown was a popular addition to the remote learning timetable, with pupils working collaboratively to build our school in the virtual world. 

Prior to lockdown, Minecraft had been used for a range of projects, including building the pyramids of Ancient Egypt (Year 3); looking at farming innovation (Year 4); school pupil librarians building a book realm to celebrate World Book Day (Years 4 to 6); and building the world of The Tempest (Year 6).

These projects allowed pupils to demonstrate their understanding of a topic by representing it within Minecraft. Actively creating models is a fantastic way for pupils to present their knowledge in a new and exciting way. These projects were completed in creative mode, which allows pupils to access all the tools and materials in the Minecraft inventory — their imagination is the only limit to what they can build.

Exploring in adventure mode 

Another game mode that can be used to great effect is adventure mode. This restricts pupils so they can explore prebuilt worlds without worrying that they may damage them. While teachers may prefer for their class to explore worlds created by themselves or their pupils, it is worth knowing that there is a good selection of prebuilt worlds that have been built by Minecraft world-building experts, many of which can be downloaded from the Minecraft Education Edition library. One of the worlds that our pupils in Year 3 interacted with in adventure mode was based on the children’s book Fantastic Mr Fox, by British novelist Roald Dahl, which they were studying in their English lessons.

When exploring virtual worlds with my pupils in school, their excitement is instantly apparent. Pupils are active learners and whenever they explore something new, they are keen to share it with their peers. When someone asks how to achieve something, someone else will often have an instant answer and be keen to share the knowledge with them.

With the Fantastic Mr Fox world, pupils were able to explore the world confidently, teleporting to various locations from the book or following the helpful signs and paths to locate them independently. Playing in adventure mode gave more confidence to some learners because they knew that they couldn’t accidentally break anything. It also gave pupils clear targets of finding and exploring the various locations from the book, without becoming distracted by building. Linking to their English lessons, the pupils gathered adjectives as they explored. They recorded these on whiteboards and then used them in their story writing.

Discovering virtual Roman worlds 

Before lockdown, the school had planned an exciting selection of cross-curricular activities for Roman Day, an annual school event  that would be celebrated by all pupils in Year 3. It had originally been planned that pupils would spend time in their lessons exploring their own city, Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum), within Minecraft, using a prebuilt world created as part of a project by the city’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. The museum had created a series of historically accurate maps of Exeter within Minecraft. Fortunately, this included a Roman map. By this point, pupils were learning remotely in all of their lessons, and so relocating this part of Roman Day to be accessed from home seemed realistic.

Two sessions were held on the day. The first enabled pupils to explore the massive world of the Roman baths in Bath, in a build created by US-based teacher Ben Spieldenner and downloaded from the Minecraft World Library. Playing this in adventure mode meant that pupils could enjoy inspecting this realistic representation of Bath and were focused on exploration.

The second session explored Roman Exeter, and was created by Adam Clarke and Minecraft world-builders Blockworks as part of a project with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Being able to explore these worlds one after the other helped pupils to compare and contrast the Roman cities, and to learn about local history.

Teachers may wish to take advantage of a few tools from the game inventory that they may not be familiar with. The camera allows pupils to take photographs (or screenshots) as they travel. The portfolio tool allows them to store photos instantly, and they can be downloaded as PDF files for future reference. The book and quill tool allows pupils to add text before downloading it.

Pupils wandered through the streets of Roman Bath. Photo credit: The world was created by Ben Spieldenner and Bonnie Graves; the screenshots are from the Minecraft Education Edition website.

Getting started with your pupils 

It is easy to feel out of your comfort zone when contemplating the use of Minecraft in lessons, but the best way to get involved is just to start playing. The official website provides some helpful interactive tutorials, and teachers will probably find that their pupils are keen to share their own experiences. As teachers explore Minecraft with their pupils, they are bound to learn other useful hints and tips. Watching Ben Spieldenner’s Minewhat? series and learning some of the keyboard commands helped me to develop my skills and knowledge.

Classroom mode gives the teacher control over pupils’ actions. Destructive items such as TNT and lava can be turned off, to avoid pupils’ creations being damaged, and if players get lost, the teacher can simply teleport them to another area. The text chat is a valuable feature, and has become a necessary tool when playing from within our own homes, with many pupils using it to offer or ask for help. Anything written in the text chat is recorded in chat logs, so it is also an excellent tool for promoting good online behaviour.

We teachers are always looking for ways to engage pupils, and exploring existing worlds in adventure mode is a great starting point for anyone keen to get involved in the exciting world of Minecraft and steadily build their confidence.

Setting up your club

  • Create rules for players to follow in Minecraft

  • Watch Ben Spieldenner’s Minewhat? YouTube series and complete the free ‘My Minecraft Journey’ tutorials provided for teachers via the Microsoft Educator Centre

  • Install and use classroom mode to control the play

  • Learn some commands from the Minecraft Education Edition website

  • Don’t wait until you know everything about Minecraft before starting your club; just jump in and start having fun!


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