Raising gamers: what they learn… and what to do if you think they’re playing too much

Unschooling 3a

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Homeschool Blogging Carnival hosted by Lisa at The Squishable Baby and Keisha at Unschooling Momma. This month our participants are talking about online gaming and learning. sbdotsdivider

“So, are you still playing Minecraft?” my brother asks the 11-year-old Cinder. Cinder, mouth full of Chinese food, nods vigorously.

“It hasn’t gotten boring yet?” my brother asks.

“Minecraft never gets boring!” Flora, 8 years old, chimes in. “It’s always different. You always make new stuff!”

My brother, who doesn’t play Minecraft and whose question was coming from the frame of reference of X-box (or, more accurately, Atari) video games you “finish” and then put away to never play again, thinks about it for a minute. “

I guess you’re right,” he says. “I guess it’s sort of like asking if Lego ever gets boring.”

“I love Lego!” the not-quite-four-year-old Ender jumps into the conversation. Ender doesn’t play Minecraft. Or use a computer (he’s effectively taken over Cinder’s iPad though. Games of choice for the E: Endless Alphabet, Candymaker, World of Goo, Cross Fingers, and Gears). His elder brother, however, lives and breathes Minecraft. And wears Minecraft to boot—yes, he has a collection of Enderman and Creeper shirts. He plays, alone, with friends via Skype, with strangers on various servers. He runs his own server. He makes Minecraft videos. Yes, he has his own Youtube channel. Flora likes Minecraft, but she has other game loves as well. She spends a lot of time on Scribblenauts, another amazingly creative game which also serves as her spelling programme. She loves the unabashedly “educational” and curriculum-linked games on Always Ice Cream. If you put animals or pets into a game, she will play it.

I love their love and enthusiasm for their games. It’s been a long journey for me to get to this place. I’m not of the video game generation: when my brother got the Atari, I was either too old to too uninterested. And, never much of a TV or movie fan, I entered parenthood with the determination to keep my children screen-free for as long as possible. That I would be enthusiastically rearing a game player was definitely not on the agenda was Cinder was born—or when he was a two-year-old who needed a minimum of four hours of intense physical exercise a day to stay sane—or when he was a five-year-old with massive transition issues and was limited to 20 minutes of age-appropriate, commercial-free, on-DVD-only screen time at a pre-determined time of day, no exceptions, absolutely, ever.

But I won’t take you through that journey here—if you’re interested, most of it is in the How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games post on Nothing By The Book. I believe—undogmatically, but still, I believe—that every family has to walk this path individually and figure out how screen and games fit into their unique family matrix, harmony and values. Today, I just want to tell you what I see my children learn when they play—and also, what I do when I start to worry that they play too much.

What they learn The short answer: everything. No, really. Everything. Never mind the obvious: the spatial/engineering and math aspects of Minecraft, the logic behind the crafting, the incredibly hackable and easy to modify nature of the game which was Cinder’s introduction to programming. There’s a reason the Swedes are teaching Minecraft in schools and certain North American schools are following suit. A child reared on Minecraft is a child ready to master programming.

Also a child ready to master social media and social networking. Cinder was getting into Youtube Minecraft videos as I was starting to build my blog and experiment in earnest with social media outside my professional comfort zone. LinkedIn—I got. Twitter? Gah. What the hell do I do with that? He knew exactly what he was going to do with Twitter and how he was going to use it when he finally got an account: follow the players he admired, share his videos and reviews, try to get the attention of the big guns to drive traffic to his channels… (He doesn’t have a Twitter account yet, by the way. I’m permissive, but not that permissive.)

The kids are learning the dangers of social media too, in a safe environment. They play in the living room, so I’m around—in the room, within ear-shot, moving in and out of their space. I hear and see what’s happening on the screen. When they’re on Skype with their friends, and the interaction turns edgy, I’m there to help diffuse it if needed (or to bite my teeth and hang back and let them work it out… or pick up the pieces afterwards if they fail).

When they’re on a public server and the chat or play turns ugly—I’m there to talk about what’s appropriate and what’s not and why, and to talk through with them about what they can do to react to—or better yet, end—such an interaction. (When they’re 13, 15—I won’t be able to do this type of monitoring and facilitating. I know this. This is the window. The best argument, I think, for letting them on servers early.)

They learn real social skills, too. They play with each other, and they play with friends. They play cooperatively, or against each other. They negotiate. They make each other angry. They have to apologize, fix relationships, move on. For my Cinder, who’s been a late social bloomer, the ability to hone some of those skills in a gaming environment has been an absolute blessing.

They learn how to deal with frustration, irrationality and disappointment. Servers crash. The Internet goes out. There’s a glitch. Three hours worth of work disappears; a four-day project falls apart. Tears, tragedy, tantrum. And a lesson in how to deal with those feelings—how to move beyond them.

They learn to read and type and spell. Despite our houseful of books and the hours I’ve spent reading to him, Cinder ultimately learned to read from Wikis, Minecraft chats, and subtitles to game review Youtube videos. Now that he’s participating more in the game chats as he plays, he suddenly cares about spelling and works to ensure what he types is spelled correctly. That kind of rocks. Actually, not kind of. That totally rocks. I love it.

See? They learn everything.

By the way—how much do you let them play? So… I’m not going to tell you. One, because I don’t want you to use me as a model. It’s right for us. Doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Two, because it changes with the seasons and their ages and stages and what’s going on in our lives at any given moment. Three, because it’s irrelevant. It’s not about how much they play. It’s about how you feel about how much they play and how much value there is in that play. Which brings us to…

What I do when I think they’re playing too much Every once in a while, I freak out. I come down to the living room, and there’s Cinder on his computer, Skyping and playing Minecraft with his friends, and there’s Flora, on her computer, playing the pet game of the hour while watching a Youtube video on her iPad, and there’s Ender, watching Kipper or Barney or Sesame Street on Netflix and stuffing his mouth full of Lego and yeah, I freak.

But here’s the thing. That’s what they’re doing.

What am I doing?

Obviously: not interacting with them. Maybe working. Maybe cleaning. Maybe, ahem, blogging. And so, while I’m ignoring them, they’re… playing. Obviously. So, when my freak-out comes, I take a deep breath, put away the laptop, the phone, the recipe book, the laundry basket and—do stuff with them. Take them to the park, the pool, that really cool science and engineering festival the city’s putting on. Get everyone on the couch for a read-aloud. Pull out a board game like Small World or a card game like Munchkin.

You can’t get mad at your kids for “playing too much” if they’re playing because you’re too busy or unwilling to do something else with them.

“But Jane! I’d love to play a board game with them! Or go for a walk! They don’t want to!” “Then you’ve created a pattern that facilitates that. And as its creator, you can find a way to break it. I trust you. You’re awesome and creative. Do it.”

When that “ they’re playing too much” freak-out comes, I also start to be more present while they play. I’ll sit beside them and watch. I’ll ask questions. Inevitably, I see they’re engaged… and learning.

I’ve also learned that when that freak-out comes what’s invariably driving it is my sense of inadequacy: that is, I feel I’m not doing enough [insert activity of choice] with them. And so, I will take a look at what we’re doing in a given day and what I feel is lacking. Do I think we should be reading more books? Should we be outside more? Do I need more help in the kitchen and around the house and is this really about being ticked off that everyone’s on their laptops while I’m doing the dishes alone?

These are all valid feelings and frustrations. But they’re not really about them playing too much. They’re about—me. Me needing everyone to help clean the kitchen. So, I ask for that. Or about my desire to spend more time by a river. So, I do that. Or about my need to maintain our routine of lots and lots of reading out-loud together. So, I make sure that happens. And the freak-out disappears. For a little while, at least.

Jane Marsh blogs about the unschooling journey of Cinder, Flora and Ender and their parents at UndogmaticUnschoolers.wordpress.com and about unLessons in expert-free parenting at NothingByTheBook.com. In real life, she’s a legal affairs and business writer.

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4 responses to “Raising gamers: what they learn… and what to do if you think they’re playing too much

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