From climbing to solving toy puzzles, the earliest learning experiences of young children revolve around play.
“Pure play gives kids experiential knowledge that teachers can build on,” says Katie Culp, a project director for EDC’s Center for Children and Technology. “Think about kids playing with blocks in preschool. A good teacher can help kids build so many ideas about patterns and structures from these experiences.”
As students grow, the emphasis on free play often diminishes as concrete lesson plans and defined learning objectives take over. But a handful of EDC projects are trying to inject play back into learning for middle school students, using Nintendo consoles and tablet devices as their tools of choice.
The games begin
One project, Possible Worlds, explores whether students think differently about science concepts when they initially encounter them within a game environment.
Ruby Realm is the first of four Possible Worlds games. It puts students in control of a character named Biobot Bob, a robot who is trying to help a team of treasure hunters find their lost companions. While helping Bob move and defend himself, students explore the chemical reactions that occur during photosynthesis— a process that’s often misunderstood by students.
Marian Pasquale, one of the science experts behind the game, points to one popular misunderstanding that proves hard to dislodge: that plants grow because they are able to consume mass from the surrounding soil.
“We are exploring whether playing Ruby Realm, where students formally address ideas about photosynthesis and chemical reactions, can help counter student misconceptions,” says Pasquale. A study involving 42 schools in New York State is currently testing the impact of Ruby Realm on students’ understanding of photosynthesis.
Maintaining a sense of play within this game was of utmost importance—but it was not always easy. Working together, EDC researchers and game designers ultimately figured out how to make Ruby Realm both fun and scientifically accurate. And while the game allows students to explore scientific relationships through play, it still leaves the formal teaching of science concepts to their teachers.
What Ruby Realm is to science learning, Cipher Force is to vocabulary development.
By middle school, students learn primarily through reading texts. But struggling readers are often left behind, says Culp, because subject matter teachers seldom teach fundamental reading skills. Interpreting words such as trace—whose meaning varies in scientific and artistic contexts—can be especially problematic.
Cipher Force uses wordplay to build students’ skill in deciphering context-dependent words. During the game, students define a word by creating an “image code,” a three-picture montage of images pulled from a central bank. Then, using the peer-to-peer sharing capability of the Nintendo DS, they send the code to their classmates, who try to decipher the word’s definition solely by looking at the images.
Like Ruby Realm, Cipher Force puts play first. The game encourages students to explore the nuances of vocabulary, foregoing simple memorization of definitions. This approach allows for multiple correct answers and also departs from a standard practice in so-called educational games: repetitive skill practice. “We did not want to do that,” says Culp.
“We also are using the game machine to support communication among kids,” she explains. “That’s one of the most revealing things to me—hearing the kids talk to each other.”
Puzzling over math
Play also sits at the core of EDC’s newly funded iPuzzle project, the creation of Paul Goldenberg, Deb Spencer, and June Mark.
“Puzzles give you permission to think,” says Goldenberg. “The whole idea of this project is to build a culture where it’s cool to offer and accept math challenges.”
The team is building a virtual environment where middle school students (or rather their avatars) search for jewels that contain mathematical puzzles. Players can try to solve these puzzles individually or, if they get stumped, can “throw” the jewel to another student and try to solve it collaboratively.
The twist? The game will contain an incentive system that encourages students to pass puzzles to their peers; correctly solved puzzles earn points for both students.
This collaborative virtual environment gives students incentives to solve math puzzles individually and collectively. Goldenberg believes this approach could be transformative.
“Teachers often look at puzzles as dessert,” he says. “We like to think of them as the main meal.”
Originally published on April 6, 2012