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Mining Minecraft, Part 1: Little gamers’ digital play through a teacher’s eyes

Minecraft castle by a 5th-grader

A 5th-grader’s castle. She designed and built it (and she, or rather her in-world avatar, is pictured in it – 2nd from the left with blue sleeves).

Editor’s note: This week, my holiday gift to you, dear readers. Below you’ll find Part 1 of a three-part series of guest posts by teacher Marianne Malmstrom about what students learning in digital environments can teach all of us – parents, educators, risk prevention experts, and anybody else who works with young people. Editing this series felt like a gift to me, and it’ll keep on giving, because there will be more anecdotes and lessons from Marianne’s classroom over the coming months.

Marianne has been a teacher and school administrator for more than 30 years (here‘s her bio). She’s a visionary technology educator, but you’ll see as you read that she certainly doesn’t teach technology – she just uses tech tools and environments kids love to teach a lot of things, from core curriculum lessons to digital citizenship. But not just to teach. You’ll see that she facilitates her students’ own collaborative teaching, learning, and mentoring. She loves to watch them drive the learning and learns a great deal in the process. I know – I’ve watched it happen as an observer in her classroom.

You’ve seen Marianne in NetFamilyNews a number of times. I have learned so much about children’s interests and practices in digital environments from her and her students in the past few years that I realized there is no better way to pass these insights on to you than simply to let Marianne tell the story – starting with some background on digital learning environments. –– Anne Collier, editor

Guest post by Marianne Malmstrom

When discussing youth and social media, we tend to focus on teens, texting and platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Multiplayer Online Games (MOGs) – like Minecraft or Wizard 101 – generally get far less attention because they’re usually clumped into the massive category of “video games,” or worse, “entertainment media.” By paying attention to one demographic or over-simplifying what children do online, we are neglecting a growing number of highly sophisticated, tech-savvy users in grade school.

Most adults don’t give much thought to young children’s online activities. If they do, they tend to assume what they’re doing is passive entertainment. However, if we look at the digital footprints they are collectively leaving behind, we can see that a growing number of children are keenly adept at connecting, creating, learning and playing together online. Most of these activities are centered around MOGs. What Facebook is to the “older generation,” games are to today’s youngest users.

LEGO Universe was a popular MOG that closed last year. News of the closing generated a rather vocal outcry from the game’s young users. Children employed forums, wikis, Twitter, and YouTube to express their disappointment and organize efforts to save the game. These kids were not only playing on a social platform; they were using social media tools outside the game to extend the conversation and even advocate for a “game change”! This is civic engagement – what we educators hope to foster in school! Clearly, we need to rethink our roles as parents and teachers if we’re going to keep up and support all the learning our children are doing.

From pre-packaged play to digital ‘sandbox’ Minecraft

There’s an array of MOGs available to young children today, offering a range of play styles. Popular games like Club Penguin and Pixie Hollow allow children to play mini-games, care for virtual creatures, hold various jobs, collect artifacts and make friends. Communication is restricted to pre-approved language, and the platforms are designed to offer optimal safety. While these games are engaging and quite safe, they also provide for limited creativity. Sandbox MOGs such as Minecraft, on the other hand, offer children much more freedom to imagine, role-play and create their own content. It’s like comparing books of stickers to a box of art supplies. Would you rather collect and rearrange pre-packaged art or have the freedom to make your own art? Judging from the wild popularity of Minecraft, we can deduce that children are opting for autonomy.

Minecraft players get to choose their mode of play: creative (e.g., design and build stuff), survival (e.g., survive monster attacks) or player vs. player (self-explanatory). The game also allows choices in the level of difficulty and whether you want to play by yourself or in multiplayer mode. You can connect with friends via nearby computers or join Minecraft servers others have set up. You can even set up and host your own server (software that hosts Web sites, games and other Net-based services), running it either from your home computer or renting space from a hosting company. Servers can be public, available to all comers, or private (e.g., for family and friends only), depending on how they’re configured. The freedom having your own server, as we do at my school, represents is fantastic, but it also has some important implications with respect to safety. It is in our children’s best interest for us to become informed about where and how they play online. [More on the safety implications in Part 3 and beyond.]

Kid code writers & game designers

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Minecraft is the community that has developed around it because of players’ passion for the game. Players – a lot of them kids – share tips and strategies and show off their epic creations in videos they produce. They’re also reshaping the game itself by creating and distributing plugins, referred to as mods (short for modifications), that customize the core gameplay mechanics – in other words, kids are writing software code! “Modding” is a growing trend in today’s gaming culture. It looks like it’s no longer enough just to play a game as it was originally designed. Players are recreating, redefining and pushing the boundaries of the core game in new directions with these modifications. Let’s think about this for a second: Kids are writing code and trying out elementary game design.] Arizona State University professor James Paul Gee maintains that these communities, or affinity groups, that develop around games are excellent spaces for developing essential skills needed in today’s professional world.

In using Minecraft as a multidirectional teaching tool and environment, not only are we seeing students do the creative and collaborative problem-solving that prepares them for their futures, we’re seeing the kind of engagement and initiative that increases their capacity and desire to learn right now, early in their school experience. As a long-time teacher, I have never seen students so excited to learn. That’s why I’m writing these stories for NetFamilyNews – I want parents and teachers everywhere to see the amazing things I see when kids are given the space to play. The heart of the learning that’s needed for today’s constantly changing world is embedded in that play (not in homework, tests and standardized curriculum). One cannot observe their curiosity, ingenuity and ability to learn independently and collaboratively without feeling awestruck. These kids are showing us the way to their future – if we dare to listen and are brave enough to follow.

Next: Why we need to have digital environments at school

Related links (added later)

  • K-4 teacher Kevin Jarrett in New Jersey is now working with students in Minecraft – here’s his illustrated account of a very successful first day.
  • In a recorded conversation I had the other night with Marianne, I used this handful of slides to talk about what I’ve learned about where online safety, successful learning in digital environments, and good game design intersect (hint: agency, relevance, and competency for students).
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