Computergames, internet and constructionism

an article about the learning experience

of playing computergames  


published (shorter version) in NRC Handelsblad Feb. 8th 2003

published (full version) in VIVES, monthly for computer and school, summer 2003  



Buy a computer and the first thing your kids will do with it is play games. It's amazing to see how quickly they master their technique; try it yourself and, with your child looking on warily, you'll only feel clumsy. These games are important to children: they are the subject of heated debate amongst friends in which it's important which 'level' you have played out, if you've beaten the 'end boss' already (how did you do it?) and if you are the first to do so, you're a real hero for a while. The more difficult the game, the more appealing and once it has been mastered, it's time for another, even more challenging game.

Compare this with most edutainment software, designed for use in or on behalf of the classroom: programmes which through a games format aim at helping the children practice their math or spelling. Most kids use them without much enthusiasm, hopping from one (correct) answer to the next uninspiring question. These games do not evoke debate amongst peers and it is questionable if the children would play them voluntarily. [i]

What do children learn from their own games, how important is that knowledge and what kind of games are most appealing?

A large investigation, done in 2000/2001 in the U.K. by TEEM (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia) into the educational benefits of games in education shows that children are first of all trained in problem solving, for which they develop a wide range of strategies, depending upon the specific game genre. The survey also demonstrates the importance of the way these games evoke discussion: children often play them together, leading to greater communication and cooperation skills. [ii]

Seymour Papert

Anyone interested in computergames and learning is bound to come across the pioneer in this field, Dr. Seymour Papert, co-founder of and still a faculty member at M.I.T. Media Lab, Cambridge, MA.

Papert, a mathematician by training who for many years worked in Switzerland with the educational innovator Jean Piaget, started his research into computers as learning tools for children as far back as the 1960's. At the time he was viewed as an elitist dreamer. Now that his vision of the universal availability of computers has come true, he is considered one of  the world's leading scientists researching the use of new technology for new ways of learning.


In the eighties Papert developed his theory on 'constructionist', as opposed to traditional instructionist learning, in which a student passively undergoes his teacherís instruction. Constructionist learning is based on the idea that a child learns best when in the active role of designer and constructor[iii] Compare it to the building of a sandcastle on the beach: the child goes about his business enthusiastically and learns in the process, without any instruction taking place. The disadvantage of a sandcastle is the fact that you cannot save it, cannot come back to it to improve it or to show it to others. Constructionist learning with the aid of the computer, however, makes all that possible[iv] and Papert considers that element of sharing one's work with others (discussion! debate!) as an essential key in the learning process[v].

Whenever a child is actively and passionately involved in doing something, a unique opportunity occurs to expand the meaning of that activity for the child, who will be interested in furthering its knowledge of related facts. What could be a better moment to tell a child about the movement of the tides than while its sandcastle is about to be absorbed by the waves?

Needless to say that popular computer games often contain elements of constructionist learning. Take for instance the widely played Age of Empires, in which the player has to build a virtual community in a medieval setting. He then has to defend this community against neighbouring enemies which he will have to defeat in the end. During the game the player continually has to make decisions about where and how to use his resources. He can design and make his own game and can save it to go back at a later date. His decisions evoke heated debate with friends. When he has mastered the game on one level of difficulty he only has to move on to the next  to tackle a new challenge. His involvement in the game also offers a good opportunity to enlarge his knowledge of medieval society in general.

Easy versus difficult

Papert is convinced that children aren't interested in 'easy' where learning is concerned but rather in: the harder, the better. The challenge is to master the game and that is exactly where most edutainment software fails. In a 1998 article he explains: " The language of these ads betrays the way in which this software throws away what is best about the contribution of game designers to the learning environment and replaces it with what is worst about the contribution of school curriculum designers. What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don't like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring." [vi]

the child as computer programmer

For Papert, however, it's not just about playing games: the child is encouraged to follow in the steps of the game designer and start programming for himself. Inspired by Papert's book 'Mindstorms: children, computers and powerful ideas', the Lego company developed its newest and highly popular product line, appropriately called Lego Mindstorms.  It combines the lego building blocks with built-in microprocessors which can be programmed on a pc for a whole range of tasks. Visiting the Lego Mindstorms website and surveying the active exchange of ideas, inventions, robots, etc., one can imagine the kinds of skills being developed while 'playing' with this lego. In the Netherlands Lego Mindstorms is still relatively unknown (I couldn't find it in my local toys 're us, for instance) but Jonette Korevaar of the Oranje Nassau primary school in Stolwijk introduced it in her classroom.[vii] On her homepage one can find an interesting overview of the way she incorporates design assignments with Lego Mindstorms in her curriculum for 5th graders. [viii]


Lego Mindstorms, where Papert serves on the board, is not the first practical result of his ideas. Back in 1981 Papert founded LCSI, Inc. with the specific goal of designing software which "develops a child's creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Not only are these key elements of normal intellectual development but these are the type of skills that workers of the next century will need to succeed."[ix]

It started out with the designing of LOGO, a programming tool for children which was a big hit in the 1980's. Today LCSI offers state of the art educational software like Journal Zone, Microworlds Pro (the newest logo product, meant as a tool for web design by children) and My Makebelief Castle (in which pre-schoolers themselves control what happens in a virtual multimedia castle with different activities in every room.)

Game design and its possibilities underwent a whole new turn with the rapidly expanding availability of the World Wide Web. Via specialty websites it is now possible to play a game like Age of Empires against one another, wherever the players are in the world (before, this was only an option on different workstations of the same network). And of course this was accompanied by a worldwide exchange of strategy, tricks, tips, etc. Just this kind of communication, one of constructionism's most important aspects, 'publishing' one's ideas and designs and receive feedback on them, was greatly expanded by the rise of the internet.

Idit Harel

Dr. Idit Harel, a former collaborator of Papert's at M.I.T., is a strong supporter of his theories and adds to them in her own publications. Another important aspect of her work is the propagation of constructionist playing/learning via the internet. For that purpose she founded MamaMedia, Inc., the company behind a similarly named, interactive games site on the Web. On the site she also publishes many of her own general audience articles, in which she explains MamaMedia's philosophies and deals with (responsible) internet use by children in general.[x]

The three X's

Which skills does she want to help develop via the games on her website? Harel summarizes them as the Three X's: eXploring, eXpressing and eXchanging. In her opinion these skills will be just as important for the new century as the three R's (Reading, wRiting and 'Rithmatic) have been for the past.

"The first X, eXploring, is learning how to discover for oneself. This skill of eXploring takes advantage of kids' natural passion for learning and discovery", she says and "That's when the learning resonates -- when a child discovers forherself rather than being told. The Net can be the ideal learning environment for such open-ended discovery, the kin d that creates a passion and desire for learning itself. And children who are confident explorers develop resourceful and flexible minds." [xi]

"eXpressing, or learning how to use a vast palette of tools to become designers, builders and architects of your own ideas. The Net expands the notion of a tool into infinite dimensions with its veritable warehouse of creative instruments that includes sounds, color, motion. From building a digital skyscraper to designing an animated Web page, the Net lets kids create, work and play in ways they never could before. For kids, mastering the art of self-expression is not about attending high-tech art class; it's about using digital media to become versatile and effective communicators of ideas."

" The third X, eXchanging, is the sharing of ideas with others. It is my belief that real learning occurs only in a social context, in an environment where you can exchange ideas, ask questions and work with peers and experts. Moreover, through eXchanging, kids become active participants in their learning, not passive absorbers of information. When they share ideas, thoughts and creations, they also learn about teamwork and the benefits of collaboration."


The three X's are firmly based on Papert's constructionist ideas (Papert is also actively involved in MamaMedia). Harel, in her article 'Building software beats using it', tells about a project during her days at M.I.T. where she and others introduced the constructionist theories to a group of inner city 4th graders in Boston. The idea was to let the children design an educational computer programme on learning fractions, usually a tough and abstract problem for children. The children became very involved in the subject and in long discussions started thinking of ways to visually represent fractions. Looking around they realized how many things from their daily surroundings deal with or are related to fractions. In order to choose the most effective representations, they also had to start thinking like younger children again, for whom fractions are still a new, unknown phenomenon. In an open classroom, where everybody could look into the work of the others and where debate flowed freely, the ideas were subsequently translated with LOGO into a software programme. Not only did  the class get enormously motivated for the subject, the end result was a new product, to be used to introduce fractions.


Looking at the wide range of games on MamaMedia, it is easy to understand why this site quickly grew to be one of the most popular children's sites on the web. The three X's are easy to discern in them. Digsig, for example, where a child composes her own fantasy figures out of countless basic elements, clearly deals with Exploring. The Sandwich shop as well, where one surfs to a multitude of nice and informative sites (often made by children themselves), conveniently arranged and classified.

Expressing happens in Stamps and Stomps for instance, where children have endless options to make their own animated pictures with funny sounds and motion. Also in Jumbler, a programme that lets you put together or jumble up all kinds of pictures.

Exchange takes place in Gallery: one can publicize one's own creations or look at those of others. In Kids Say you voice your opinion on ever changing subjects or find out what others have to say about them.

These are only a few examples of the many activities on the MamaMedia site. Its beautiful, child friendly multi media design and its diverse content make a visit by children and their parents more than worthwhile! Mamamedia  may not be about concentrated adventure gaming but there are other sites available for that purpose. Important is its safe and child friendly entry to experimenting, playing and learning on and through the Net. Safety, by the way, is a number one concern for Harel, who has interesting ideas on the subject, to be found in her article  'What makes a good kid's website?'[xii]


Games on the computer and internet, they are about more than mere entertainment for children and they contribute to their development in different ways. Excessive use may have a negative influence but I hope to have illustrated here that they also hold the promise of positive learning experiences. As a parent it is important to communicate with your child about his or her adventures in the game/on the net, even though their technology may be foreign to you. It will not only give you the opportunity to expand your child's discoveries and put them into perspective, but also to learn something from your child for once. That alone will make them proud and provide them with a positive selfimage experience. The same applies to the teacher, who on top of that should also be aware of game playing's effects on learning. If he is, he will be able to build effectively upon that in the classroom. Finally, for the publishers and designers of educational software it would be beneficial to take note of the ideas of people like Papert and Harel. Their products' efficacy and attractiveness could only be enhanced by it!

© Ard Hesselink

No part of this publication may be used or reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, eclectronical or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any other information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the author.

This article is based on an internet search. In that I was helped by several 'digital contacts' with whom I corresponded by e-mail.  I would like to express my gratitude to Prof Dr M.H. Overmars, University Utrecht, Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Associate Professor, Department of Child and Family Studies, California State University, Los Angeles, Dr. Estrid Sorensen, University of Copenhagen, Department of Psychology en Matthew Lees - Vice President van Mama Media, NYC

[i]  Let's not get to negative. There is outstanding (creative, challenging and inviting) edutainment software on the market as well!  

[ii] the complete survey, which treats many different aspects of the use of games in a classroom setting, can be found at:


[iii] [iii][3] as in the words of Dr. Idit Harel in her article 'Sandcastles go digital' from which more of the following has been taken.

[iv] But do not think, dear reader, that I am pleading here for the abolition of sandcastle building, playing hide andseek or reading a book! On the contrary, there is nothing more important! This article, however, just doesn't deal with it.

[v] Piaget's influence in these ideas is clear: the child's central role in its own development, the emphasis on discovering on your own and on cooperation are all elements one can also find in Piaget's theories.

[vi] 'Does easy do it?', Seymour Papert, published in Game developer, juni 1998, to be found at:                                                                                        

[vii] As I happened to find out about in an article in the Internet educational bulletin Maki ( of 4/11/02




[xi] the passages about the three X's are parts of Harel's own descriptions in her article 'Take your kids on a field trip - on the World Wide Web!' and therefore in between quotation marks.                                 

[xii] see footnote 10