Have you ever had students bring in old items from home, issued them fake money, and let them buy items from one another? It is a great way to get students using vocabulary in a lifelike situation! You aren't role playing; rather, students are really exchanging currency for products. They can haggle, contemplate the worth of something, and budget. This is called a simulation.
Simulations are very popular in all types of educational settings because they help students see that what you are teaching them in the classroom is valid in the real world. Why are simulations so successful? Think back to when you were younger. If someone said, "The oven is hot; don't touch it" what did most children do? Touch it!
It isn't (usually) because they are trouble makers. We want to experience things fro ourselves rather than trust what someone says. The child thinks, "maybe the oven is hot to some people, but maybe I won't think it is hot," or, "well how hot is it?"
Simulations are great because they show our students that what we are talking about is real. They also let us discuss what we want to with our students knowing that they all have a shared background.
Finally, they are one of the ways I encourage teachers to help students open their schema. For example, if you were going to teach about social hierarchy you could ask a series of questions about their own experiences interacting with different classes or you could use a simulation from Shilo Morlang's book, 10 Sims for Teachers involving a deck of cards. Once they have all finished the simulation, you can discuss what it reminds them of, how they can see it in other parts of their life. This is a great way to be sure that your students are prepared to have the knew knowledge of their class, "stuck" in their brains!
On a related note, check out this video made for teachers at my school on different ways to help students access prior knowledge.
What's your favorite simulation to use in class?