How to talk to your kids about Minecraft

One concern with Minecraft is that parents often find it hard to ask kids good questions about it. The good news is that good questions don’t require specific jargon knowledge. Good  questions help kids who are poor at managing their time playing it. It’s something that they (and you) can learn and work on.

I make no bones about it, games like Minecraft are exciting and rewarding to kids, often in exact proportion to how boring school and TV is. If you want your kid to be creative-curious-adventurous, Minecraft is hands down better than watching hours TV or copying a set of facts the board in a classroom. But parents – all of us – find managing game time a challenge, as most of us have no experience of it until it manifests in the home.

So, how do parents get better at managing Minecraft? Well its a two part solution.

First, think about the location and second, use questions that relate directly to potential behavioural changes (in you and them). It’s not so hard … but you do have to think rather than react to your own emotions. Yelling doesn’t make it better, which is not to suggest that it’s an easy thing to avoid when she freaks-out as you yank the modem out the wall. We’ve all been there. The first step it to try and better manage the situation.

This is best to do this in two ways. First is about location. Sitting with them as they play (their zone) or in a neural zone (the park). Don’t summon them to the kitchen for a lecture – kitchens are for noms. The second is about using questions that have been shown to promote behavioral change away from regressing back to conflict.

So here are 10 questions that I’ve found work.

1. What are some of the skills that have contributed to your success? (insight)
2. What get’s in your way of success? here (insight)
3. What do you find most rewarding things to do? (motivation)
4. What additional skills or things could I (the parent) do to help them you feel even more successful? (abilities)
5. What do other people say about your Minecraft builds? (real world)
6. What have you said about other people’s builds? (accountability)
7. How much time do you think you play a week? (accountability)
8. Have you ever griefed someones Minecraft build? Why/why not? (accountability)
9. What makes a great Minecraft server ?(insight)
10. If a new person came to you to learn how to play this – is that something you’d like to teach them? (motivation)

Not an exhaustive list – but these are ten ways to talk about Minecraft in a positive way and avoid yelling at each other. I’d appreciate it if you added some more that you find useful too. :xd

8 ways Minecraft works on your brain

Recently I’ve spent some time reading parenting websites about Minecraft. What is said is often repetitive, aggregated and lacks much substance. If you are a parent, or Minecraft player, then I hope this post will provide you with some further ideas about how the game works on our minds.

The thing which most articles omit is understanding of why imagination is a primary trigger for learning. Wherever we are, in school or at home, the immediate environment can either support or stifle children’s imaginative abilities. For example, copying notes from a wipeboard is submissive. Additionally, our brain has to work really hard to keep our imagination under control, as while we’re copying it down, our imagination is kicking and screaming to be let out, and we’re not thinking about all about the importance or significance of the information. This is why they invented photocopiers, mobile phone cameras and dropbox.

Minecraft puts players to work by providing the imagination with images and metaphors that give it direction. The blocks represents a random open world and the challenge to control it. Players learn which resources help them to thrive and what dangers need to be overcome. Next, kids use their imagination to make sense of the real world – more than facts or information. Ever wondered why parents say the same thing over and over and the kid does it anyway? … so Minecraft is a game which helps kids make sense of the real world – even though to the adult brain, it’s a lego world and nothing like real life – or the things kids need to know to thrive. Wrong, yes it is, just like kids in ancient cultures learned about hunting, or in the 1800s kids recited facts as in a factory reciting facts is was all that was needed for most kids.

The methods commonly applied in classroom towards what teachers call ‘learning out comes’ today routinely omit the word imagination from tasks and exercises. Schools like more measurable things such as list, find, calculate, show and so on. They can mark this … but marking Minecraft – what would be the point? Well the point is, for most people marks and league tables have been proven to de-motivate and train us to be submissive. So if you like freedom and liberty a kid playing Minecraft is unlikely to be submissive – hence why they wont’ get off it when you demand.

Academics have shown how important imaginative play is to child development for hundreds of years . This hasn’t stopped schools ignoring it. From the age of 9 or 10, a child’s day become less and less imaginative and more standardised as the great hammer of measuring kids by test scores emerges. There comes a tipping point where imaginative becomes day-dreaming and off with the faeries rather than a stand up student getting straight A’s. This is a social rule, the way we begin to define who is seen as a success and who isn’t. Again, ignore the fact many of the worlds biggest corporations and most valuable inventions were developed by people who dropped out of school, or crisscrossed it – like Einstein and Jobs.

All these things are set aside in ‘Minecraft is evil’ posts – not because it’s not true, but because life feels somewhat easier to adults who long ago submitted their imagination to someone else. The use iPhone apps, rather than imagine themselves making them so to speak. Kids don’t. In Minecraft, they can build anything … the imagination light is lit up like a 20,000 watt light the whole time they play.

Imaginative behaviors in Minecraft

Imaginative behavior is based on the brain’s ability to draw upon and combine elements from our previous experiences. Educational scholar Len Vygotsky wrote in 1930 …

The brain is not only the organ that stores and retrieves our previous experience, it is also the organ that combines and creatively reworks elements of this past experience and uses them to generate new propositions and new behavior. …This creative activity, based on the ability of our brain to combine elements, is called imagination or fantasy in psychology. (p. 9)

So here are eight things I see happening when children and adolescents play Minecraft.

  • Sensation – Learning as sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy – Learning as make-believe
  • Narrative – Learning as unfolding story
  • Challenge – Learning as obstacle course
  • Fellowship – Learning as social framework
  • Discovery – Learning as uncharted territory
  • Expression –  Learning as soap box
  • Submission – Learning as mindless pastime

Note that of these eight ways of playing Minecraft, children switch between them. One minute they are searching a cavern (Discovery), the next they are building a Library (Expression). At times, when they lack direction or motivation with other ways to learn, they wander about the open world in a state of Submission until something happens.

To me, parents can be the something happens. Even if they don’t play the game. Asking “how high can you build a tower” switches the child’s effort from submission to challenge for example. In many ways, a teacher or parent in a world without games used to do this all the time.

Like it or not, games now do it too. Minecraft is very special because unlike something like Tetris or even Grand Theft Auto, it has all 8 of these facets firing all the time. When it becomes multiplayer, kids stimulate each other constantly – not to make new things – but to change state.

This to me is why they find classrooms boring – they don’t change state in the way games do. Or rather they can, if the classroom is designed to change state and I don’t mean from ‘listen to me talk’ to ‘write this in your book’ – that leads to learning as a mindless pastime. Of course, when mass education was invented, being a submissive worker, following instructions and not ‘day dreaming’ was what school was all about.

So if your kid is playing Minecraft, then according to deeply respected academic research and principles, she is not undertaking a mindless pastime. I’d argue playing Minecraft now might be one of the things that saves them from it in the future too.

The trick is to know how to design day to day learning the way Minecraft works … or to say it isn’t possible and write another ‘Minecraft sucks post’.

I say it is …

Getting Online Communities – online

 

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Okay, so you’ve decided to let your students interact online, publish, make, do blah … no more passive technology use. Good for you (and them). How do you set it up so that it becomes a norm, not a storm?

Communication with parents is not only about seeking permission … its about seeking dialogue.

Parents view on home internet activity

Parents see kids on MySpace, Bebo, Messenger et al. Lots of parents in the last few years have said to me ‘he’s always on messenger chatting – how do get him to do his homework’. In a general way, teens spend more time at home with their PC for social-entertainment than they do learning. Googling/Wikipedia and slamming it into a Word document is more often than not – the kind of activity that kids do at home. But you want to change that right?. Communication is the key with parents – to change thier perceptions of what their kids are doing with a computer. This is where you kick off your campaign.

Obviously, you are going to send home a note to get permission. Obviously, you are going to ensure that your school has an effective AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) to ensure that everyone is aware of what you are doing. Fianlly, you’ve obviously decided to MODERATE all comments.

So lets get started with a simple, effective 4 step plan to get online and get parents and students talking about technology and the issues that we all know are critical right now.

The note sent home is the first in a line of communication opportunities, not purely a permission slip, and I’ll come to that shortly.

The other thing about working online at home, is that parents physically ‘see’ less paper and books. So they become concerned that ‘he is not getting homework’. This leads to kids getting hassled about that, plus the time they are on the computer … so you have to ease the migration for both student and parent.

Step 1 – Communicate the class goals to parents

Set up a new class email account for parents to contact you. Either via the school system or gmail. Use this as your communication channel to parents. Send a letter home explaining what you are doing in simple language. There are TWO key parent hot spots. One addresses the ‘what is he doing online’ – tell them that he is learning about internet safety and digital reputation and representation online. You might want to mention the 95% of digi-teens on MyFace et al, and how it is important for them to realise the importance of privacy and being appropriate online. The second one is Media Literacy, tell them you are studying this, and specifically the issues about ‘downloads’, file sharing, and copyright. Parents have seen the ‘don’t download’ messages, but often are not sure ‘how or when’ their kids do it.

So right now, you’ve got a draft letter, explaining TWO goals. The third goal is actually, reflective writing – but that one will be demonstrated.

A third point of the letter, is to invite them to communicate with you. Say that over the course of the semester, students will be participating in safe publishing activities online, and if they have any questions (about anything) that they can contact you at your new email address. This opens a communication channel.

Step 2 – Explain specifically what the students will be doing.

Give parents the URL of the place students will be working. I suggest you stick to communities like Ning or 21Classes if this is your first run. If the URL is ugly, shorten it with TinyURL to make it easy.

The next letter home should have an outline of the work, and your expectations of any ‘home’ internet use. I strongly suggest the use of the word ‘may’ – as not all students will have access at home – so you are going to need to make school based arrangements – but for those students who will be online at home in Ning for example … make sure that the parents know your expectation (max) time. Getting parents to help manage the time and activities that students are doing.

In this letter you will ask for basic permission for students to engage in read/write activities – within the boundaries set. Also ask for a parent email address (you might not get one, but ask anyway). Ask if it’s okay for you to contact them from time to time.

Step 3 – Discussion  and Collaboration with parents.

Set some homework task that the kids can’t do alone – but with parents. Focus on the TWO issues you started with – Reputation and Legals. Ask a couple of driving questions such as;

“How can you tell is something on the internet is real or fake” or “What reputation do Teens have in their use of the internet”.

Try to make them short and un-google-able. Ask the kids to discuss these with 2/3 family members and produce a short report on each question – using your new online community. Make sure they use paper and a pen at home, then transfer that to the community site. This will form your initial basis discussion online and allow you to talk about commenting and the other great things that build reflective writers (another skill to learn).

When you’ve had the discussion … post your own ‘blog’ story about the questions, and quote the students and family members (no names). Thread the conversation together making sure you are not making judgements … and prepare for the final step.

Step 4 – Parent Feedback

Send home a short survey – with closed questions – focus on their opinion of how their kids used technology and talked about their project at home.

Include a link to the community site and/or to your own reflection post.

Invite parents to email you any feedback about anything directly. (Access to student works will depend on your schools view of ‘public access’ – but comments MUST BE OFF duing that period).

In class – discuss the survey with students, throwing in any relevant comments you got via email – and then get them to reflect on it in your community site.

What did you think about your reputation as an online learner – what did parents think? – How did you’re use of technology at home change – did parents see it as a beneficial – etc.,

Get the students to grade your first project!

Conclusion

This is not an absolute science … but its very important to recognise that parents want their kids to be safe and to do safe things online. They are often not tech savvy parents, but understand communication. Before setting off, you are preparing some classroom norms for kids and parents.

You will tell them what you are doing online, you give them a method of opt-in communication to ask questions or to share ideas and feedback, and you are removing some of the ‘fear’ that parents have when kids are online – in things like Messenger and MyFace. You are showing parents that you are asking important questions and that you are ‘teaching’ media literacy and safety – along with content. This sets you, the teacher, as adding value and an open communicator.

Parents want to be advocates for their students and it’s important to include them in what you are doing. Your first venture should be simple, easy and relevant to both the students and the parents. This process allows you to do that – and to include manditory policy needs – but at the same time create a sense of ‘always responsive’ communication.

It’s unlikely that you’ll get all parents in to the school for a presentation evening – or that they will understand what you are talking about if you did. This line of communication builds trust and can be managed. At some point you might want to do more … but for your first digital field trip, you need to address parent concerns and demonstrate that you are moving your students to consider repulation, ethics and legal aspects of technology – not just social uses.

You may have grand plans, but as the ‘leader’ you need to make sure you know exactly where your students and parents are in your online activities – create UNITY. This makes what you are doing in your classroom and community both engaging and open – and you will get direction from those groups. Start simple, and keep it simple. It takes a while for parents and students to see what you are doing as ‘normal’.

But it builds, and transforms learning.