The benefits of breeding dragons


What role do computer games have in the educational of 21st century children? Karen Sullivan offers her perspective.

I was honoured to present at the recent Practical Pre-School Awards in Birmingham. While there, I met Antonio Gould, who specialises in broadcast games and education. He told me about a book entitled What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy.

It is by American professor of education James Paul Gee, who is fascinated by the cognitive development that can occur when “someone is trying to escape a maze, find a hidden treasure and even blasting away an enemy with a high-powered rifle”.

He pinpoints many key elements of learning through this type of media, including the development of identity, grasping meaning, learning through trial and error, evaluating and following commands, role-modelling and how we perceive the world.

While obviously not all video games are conducive to reasoned, reflective learning practices, we should not underestimate the impact that they can have. Nor should we ignore them as a tool for learning, particularly in pupils who are not engaged.

One of the most important ways that children learn is through play. Play allows children to be creative, while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical, emotional and cognitive powers. It is crucial for healthy brain development, and when play is “child-driven”, children practise decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest and engage fully.

In his article Digital Game-Based Learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless, Professor Richard Van Eck notes: “Games embody well-established principles and models of learning. For instance, games are effective partly because the learning takes place within a meaningful (to the game) context. What you must learn is directly related to the environment in which you learn and demonstrate it; thus, the learning is not only relevant but applied and practised within that context. Learning that occurs in meaningful and relevant contexts, then, is more effective than learning that occurs outside of those contexts, as is the case with most formal instruction.”

This tallies with what I’ve seen personally. Feeling guilty that my youngest son (eight) spends a lot of time playing games on the console, I asked him what he’d learned after every session. He has learned “never to build an underground dwelling without roof access” (Minecraft), “women don’t like talking about fishing” (The Sims), he developed an overwhelming interest in gems, their value and mineral constituents (Dragon Vale – which has also taught him how to nurture a breeding dragon).

The long-term benefits or educational merits of any of this are questionable, but I have to concede that he is picking up information and developing strategies, resilience, decision-making and problem-solving. This is all part of cognitive development.

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, relates a story about playing Sim City with his nephew, 13. After watching him play, his nephew advised him that he needed to “increase his rates of industrial taxation” in order to progress. Mr Gould says: “I love the idea that this kid wouldn’t have had the slightest interest in that subject if it weren’t through wanting to win at a game.”

There are many ways in which children learn and a huge number of learning styles. If brains can be stretched, skills mastered and information learned through fun, who are we to argue? Why not ask your game-playing students to prepare an argument in defence of their favourite game, pinpointing what they’ve learned in areas of intellectual development and also general knowledge?

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert.


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