Guest post by: Mia Zamora, Ph.D.
I am blessed to wear two special “hats”. I am simultaneously both an educator and a Mom. And I often marvel at how these two roles are truly integrated. I find that many of the reflections that emerge from my educator self are mirrored by the experience of my parental self, and vice-versa. As an educator, I am always looking for “in-roads” to enhance the peer learning experiences in my classrooms. I ponder the ways that I might harness the power of connecting in order to revitalize learning. And as a parent of two young children, I often wonder how such habits of empowered social learning take hold, and in what spaces and experiences do these instincts take flight? One particular opportunity has shed powerful light on these questions.
Enter the virtual Minecraft Camp.
Launched last summer in “beta” form by Pursuitery, and this summer being offered by Connected Camps in collaboration with Institute of Play, this special opportunity for my own kids has offered a enlighted lens into the power of learning beyond the traditional classroom context. Â I have grasped so much by simply observing my own two young sons’ enthusiasm for Minecraft, especially as they have become avid members of this special Minecraft Camp community. Â The Summer 2015 camp consists of a complete 4-week camp experience on moderated camp servers from July 6th – August 2nd, 2015. The Minecraft camp can be accessed in the comfort of your own home and at your convenience. Kids have the opportunity to learn with expert peer counselors in a safe, moderated, multiplayer environment.
Like so many other parents of young kids, there has been concern regarding the amount of “screen time” our sons experience and we have strived for a healthy balance. Â We have also been big advocates of good old fashioned “go outside and play” time. Still, the Minecraft bug has bitten both my boys. And God knows, they are not alone in this phenomenon. Parents everywhere are adjusting to minecraft obsession. Minecraft is a sandbox video game that has most certainly taken the world by storm. The creative and building aspects of Minecraft enable players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D procedurally generated world. Think digitized legos, with activities including exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and combat. Minecraft is an open world game that has no specific goals for the player to accomplish, allowing players a large amount of freedom in choosing how to play the game. When a child becomes a Minecraft enthusiast, an early step along the way is an interest in joining a community server in order to play this open game with other players. This social and participatory element of the Minecraft experience is at once an exciting growth opportunity but also presents a daunting risk. Parents are understandably concerned with keeping their children safe in an online environment. This monitored and safe Minecraft Camp has provided the chance for my own sons to experience participatory game play, while also learning problem solving and design, advanced building techniques, online web literacy, collaboration and community organizing, and ultimately, digital citizenship.
When they joined the first iteration of the camp last summer, they quickly acquired new skills. The most obvious acquisition was a myriad of new building techniques, some of which required more explicit computational thinking in order to execute. They also made new friends, and they learned how to communicate and plan with others while co-designing the world around them. They negotiated, built teams, designated roles, and worked with others to realize shared purpose. I was surprised how quickly they both improved their keyboarding skills. I guess when you want to communicate something quickly in real time (like texting), your fingers learn quickly to keep up with the pace of play. Each time they logged on, they were excited to see who was on the server. It reminded me of the real world experience of swinging by your local coffee shop or library. You wonder what friends or colleagues might be there when you decide to drop by. You delight in the serendipity of meeting new friends. There is no doubt that their virtual environment has mirrored the experiences of community building in the real world.
This summer I expect to see them “level up” around certain skill sets. They express the ambition of learning how to develop “let’s play” videos that capture their adventures as they build in the Connected Camp server. These short homemade videos are narrated by the individual players themselves as they explore and discover the virtual world that they are building. My sons are also especially excited to engage in “challenges” like adventure games with maps, and time based design jams. They have expressed interest in blogging about their in-game adventures. And they will also be participating in a coding week of the Minecraft Camp where they will learn to code in-game using the Lua programming language.
There is no doubt that there is considerable learning involved when kids play this game in a safe and productive environment. And their learning is often fueled by the social engagements which open up new possibilities for their creativity. My colleague Mimi Ito has written eloquently about her own son’s involvement as he gears up to take on the role of camp counselor this summer. Once an enthusiastic younger player, he is now a teen able to take on an advisory role as he guides the little kids-a great example of peer learning by design.
The “Mom” in me has been wary lately of the effect that traditional forms of classroom learning has had on the vital spirit of my children. I have observed the necessary transition from their early childhood exploration and play to the much more “hemmed-in” expectations of their elementary school curriculum. I have felt a sense of loss for them as they have experienced the gradual shift from open discovery through play, to an educational system ridden with worksheets and assessments. From kindergarten to the fourth grade, the fun factor has certainly waned. But in the summertime they feel free again for a myriad of reasons. In many ways that freedom mirrors the wisdom originally realized on the toddler’s playground. For deep and lasting learning is also about freedom. Make no mistake, the summertime is most certainly a time for powerful forms of learning. And in an open virtual game like Minecraft, kids can discover their own self-driven interests a new. They are free to learn in powerful intuitive ways from their friends. They can create on their own terms, and in the process they have room to discover what makes them tick.