Making Learning Fun with Games

In the last few days I have had a couple of conversations with friends about teaching children. These conversations have inspired me to write a bit about my thoughts on the topic. My experience basically comes from teaching my own son. I strongly believe in the need for parents to supplement their childs education. To the point that I try to work with my kids a little bit every day.

As anyone with children will likely tell you it can be difficult at times to maintain their interest. Even if you are incredibly passionate about a topic it can be challenging to imbue them with that passion. One thing I have noticed while working with my son is that he gets excited when the solutions come easily. Conversely, failure to immediately understand quickly leads to disinterest. This would seem to imply a need for instant gratification. For that reason I often seek ways of removing that need or replacing that need in some way.

One obvious but still great method to address this problem while still providing a lesson is through games. Any gamer will tell you as much. Not just because they are attempting to justify their pastime but because any games provide myriad lessons in the guise of entertainment. Two of my favorite games are DragonBox and LightBot.

DragonBox teaches the principles of algebra without focusing on the mathematical foundations. It simply challenges the child with a puzzle that involves isolating an object from a set of others using the rules of algebra. Early in the game it doesn't even use numbers, just pictures, so that the child may focus on the rules. Unfortunately there isn't enough content. My son has beat this game numerous times and basically lost interest.

LightBot teaches the basics of programming. The objective is to get a robot to turn on lights placed throughout an environment. The crux is that the series of commands needed to execute the task must be provided before the robot ever does anything. As with all games it starts off simply and increases in complexity. In this case the complexity comes from restricting the number of commands the player can use, requiring the use of subprocedures, requiring the application of recursion, and the like.

Another game we have been playing is from MindSnacks. Specifically we've been studying French to help our son prepare for entry into the Montreal educational system where at least a third of the class is taught strictly in French. In total it has nine subgames but only permits the child access to two at the beginning. The child must gain levels to unlock the others. It also focuses the child on certain aspects of the topic of study. In the case of French, and probably the other languages it supports, the topics include numbers, colors, days of the week, and greetings for a total of 50 different topics.

Of course games don't have to be deemed educational to in fact be educational. One of my son's favorite games is Minecraft. He prefers creative mode and will play for hours constructing little houses and zoos for all the animals he hatches. I don't particularly care for the game myself but it has a lot of great educational aspects to it. For instance it is great for talking about Geometry, from the different types of shapes we study to the difference between 1D, 2D, and 3D. Because it is in part focused on crafting it also offers a segue into talking about how real things are made.

Another "non-educational" game that I like is StarMade. This one is inspired by Minecraft but takes place in space. The objective is to make a spacecraft and fly it around collecting materials and fighting space pirates. I particularly like this one because it is more challenging than Minecraft but my son finds it interesting enough to work through the challenges. For instance, he would prefer to play and have to practice his reading to accomplish his goal than not. This is significant because he has not yet found that reading for the sake of reading is fun. It also offers additional lessons to those found in Minecraft. For instance, building a spacecraft requires an understanding of the different parts including the different computers required (e.g. control computer, weapons computers) to engines and shielding.

Games are not the only method for making learning fun. I also like to use experimentation to bring lessons to life but I'll talk more about this in my next entry. I have also been looking for a way to introduce my son to real world electronics and robotics. As part of this we have created a Jr. FLL but this is limited to simple machines and designing solutions. There are a lot of products being made to go beyond this which I will also discuss later.

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