Orlando after-school program sparks teens' interest in learning through games

ORLANDO, Fla. – One University of Central Florida alum is helping teens develop social and learning skills with the role of a dice.

Through a popular game Phil Zoshak, executive director of the nonprofit organization, Hero Spark, is teaching 11-to 17-year-old students grow as individuals -- all part of an after-school program that uses strategic card, board and role playing games such as the popular fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons.
"I had trouble in school, I was kind of always put in these remedial language arts classes and was kinda always told, that you know, whether it was verbally or just by being there that I was an unteachable kid," Zoshak said.

As a teen, Zoshak said it was a an awkward time in his life until he was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons -- a fantasy role-playing game where players create their own characters and story line.
"It was games like Dungeons and Dragons that helped me learn; that I had a passion for the language arts that I was good at creative writing and that I was capable of learning," Zoshak said, adding his grades were failing, but by the end of his senior year in high school, they had significantly improved.
"I had A's and B's in English and history; all the humanity -- stuff that I thought I'd never be good at," Zoshak said.

In 2015, Zoshak created Hero Spark, with the idea of giving the next generation of kids an opportunity to grow through Dungeons and Dragons.

"Face to face social interaction. When we can gather kids around the table, great things can happen. They're developing friendships here, they're building a community, and they're learning about themselves and that's the real goal of the program," Zoshak said.

Now, Zoshak meets with middle school and high school kids four days a week at the Orlando Public Library in downtown as part of the Hero Spark program.

Zoe Hart, 14, is one of the students participating in Hero Spark.
"I think this helps a lot with coming up with ideas, and like fixing writers block because you're just pushing it all into a piece of paper and creating a character is the first part of a story," said Hart.
"It made me a lot less shy. Now I'm more confident talking to people. You're kind of communicating how this person acts and it makes you more confident on how you act," Adam Ratleff, a 12-year-old student, said.
"They always outclass me every time the creativity, every time I think I have something like fun and unexpected, they find a great and amazing way to solve the problem I give them," Zoshak said. 
For Zoshak it's an approach that goes beyond rolling the dice.
"I'm this guy that just cares and wants to show them that learning is fun," Zoshak said.
It's not all fun and games. Part of the after-school program includes assisting with tutoring and homework.

For more information about Hero Spark, visit http://www.herospark.org.

About the Author: