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.
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.
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
and Papert considers that element of sharing one's
work with others (discussion! debate!) as an essential key in the learning
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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!
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
Let's not get to negative. There is outstanding (creative, challenging and
inviting) edutainment software on the market as well!
as in the words of Dr. Idit Harel in her article 'Sandcastles go digital'
from which more of the following has been taken.
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.
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.
[vii] As I happened to find out about in an article in the
Internet educational bulletin Maki (http://www.maki.nl/) of 4/11/02
the passages about the three X's are parts of Harel's
own descriptions in her article 'Take your kids on a field
- on the World Wide Web!' and therefore in between quotation marks.