By Janine Berger
The monkeys just kept throwing coconuts at Zoe’s curly little head.
First, she tried diplomacy: “No Monkeys, it’s wrong to throw coconuts at people.”
Then she tried scolding them: “Naughty monkeys! Stop being silly!”
Finally, she lost her patience: “I’ll have to spank your tushies if you don’t behave!” That worked. She made it safely through the forest after that, and she got to the castle just in time to celebrate the queen’s birthday.
Another day, she travelled from Ecuador to Cuba to visit her ballet teacher, then she went on to France to see her friend Alix, and finally she arrived in South Korea for a taekwondo lesson. The whole trip cost her exactly 96 pennies, which was fortunate because she had only earned 104 pennies as a travel agent.
Later that same day, Zoe ate a meal with two carbohydrates, two fruits and vegetables, one drink and four sugary treats. Unfortunately, she didn’t manage to get any protein. That wasn’t a very healthy meal.
None of these things really happened, of course. They were all imaginary events that occurred within the magic circle of games. That’s because 5 year-old Zoe is being game-schooled.
Game-schooling simply means learning through games. These can be classroom games, videogames, family tabletop games, role-playing games with your geeky friends…you can learn from all of them.
Games, unfortunately, don’t have a terribly good reputation. They’ve been blamed for everything from unemployment to gun violence. They’re a “waste of time”, they’re a “shouldn’t-you-be-doing-something-more-productive?” source of painful arguments between parents and kids, and even between lovers and spouses.
Yet game designers obviously know something that many teachers do not: they know the secret of how to motivate people. Whether we’re on the bus playing Candy Crush on our phone, spending hours studying the great chess openings of the grand masters, or staying up until 4am playing massively multiplayer role-playing games online, we’re doing something for no reason outsiders can understand. There’s rarely any money involved, unless we’re spending it. We don’t get grades or other real-world awards for playing. And if we’re not careful, we could get addicted and ruin our life in the real world.
So how can we turn the motivational power of games to something useful? In fact, should we even try? Wouldn’t the fun of the game be ruined by the very fact of knowing it’s good for us? Maybe for adults, this is true.
But little kids…ah little kids, with their sweet sense of wonder and innocence. All they really want is attention and time well-spent with adults who love them. Bless their dear little creative, competitive minds. As adults, we have only one crucial task: not to kill their enthusiasm for learning. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Designing games for children isn’t for the faint of heart. It looks easy, but it isn’t. It requires thought and careful planning.
So what is a game? Nobody can agree on a definition, but at its essence, it needs a goal to work towards, rules to make achieving the goal more challenging, and decisions players can make while playing to help them reach the goal.
So let’s take a look at each of the three games Zoe played.
The first one was a simple role-playing game in the style of Dungeons and Dragons. Each of us had a path to the queen’s castle. However, each time we wanted to move forward a space on our turn, a wizard (aka me) would cast a spell creating an obstacle to overcome. One such obstacle was the aforementioned monkeys. Zoe had to suggest a solution, then flip a coin: heads, her solution would work and she could advance to the next space; tails, her solution wouldn’t work and she would have to try a different way to overcome the same obstacle on her next turn. Since the party couldn’t start until we were all there, we helped each other with ideas and suggestions.
This game practices creativity, and clear narration as well as co-operation and turn-taking.
The second was a math and geography game. It began with her role-playing a travel agent trying to earn as much money as possible by convincing me to visit far away countries on our map.
“Don’t you want to visit your mummy in Canada?”
“Carolina comes from Chile.”
“Mulan comes from China so you should go there.”
Each centimeter on the map cost one penny. That’s how I travelled the world on 104 cents. Then it was her turn but she could only use the 104 pennies to visit as many places as she could. This involved a lot of mathematical calculations, as well as clear reasons to go to each country. In the end, for economic as well as touristic reasons, she chose to visit Cuba, France and South Korea.
The final game was about teaching her what makes a healthy meal…something every child should learn. This was a chance based game where we took turns picking and reading cards with food words on them and placing them on a dinner plate-shaped board according to whether they were mainly protein foods, carbohydrates, fruits or vegetables, drinks, or junk food. Whoever filled all of the categories first with at least one card on each won.
Most people enjoy playing games. Spending time with kids can be just as much fun and infinitely more valuable. Now, you can do both.
(Foto de portada de artículo de Miguel Á. Padriñán. Tomada de: https://pixabay.com/en/green-art-wood-sharp-pencil-group-1738220/ )