My two boys have been playing Minecraft for about a year and a half now and I've had the opportunity to not only vet it as an age-appropriate game for them, but I've had the pleasure of listening to the strategic conversations, creative ideas, design planning, and storytelling that take place between them on a routine basis as they think about what they want to do next in Minecraft. It's constant. WOW! What more could I ask for in a game?
I know there's been a lot of conversation about Minecraft – its popularity with kids, its potential to serve educational goals, and of course its place in the ongoing debate about "how much screen time, what to play, and for what ages" – but my gauge as to whether this game merits the amount of time my kids want to engage with it is "What impact is it having on my boys and what is their response?" And to date, it's two thumbs up in my house. Here's why…
What I love most about this 3D construction-based video game isn't that educators have endorsed it as a great tool to use in the classroom -- (even though I think that's GREAT!), but the deep creative connection and inspiration it has provided for my kids and the open-ended play experiences it offers. I haven't seen a game or toy propel them to talk so intently about what they want to create next, what design elements they are thinking of using, how they'll actually build it, what materials in the game they'll use, how they'll have to find and gather those materials in order to do it, and who else (of their friends) they want to talk to about it as their ideas evolve. Not since LEGOs, anyway. From my point of view, that's a lot of great -- and fairly sophisticated -- thinking going on that supports making choices, setting goals and determining outcomes, problem solving, experimentation, design thinking, creativity, and collaboration.
While the graphics are basic – and primitive compared to other blockbuster video games – that's not the draw. What kids love is that you are dropped into a randomly generated terrain (mountains, prairies, deserts, etc.) and from there you have all the freedom in the world to create and transform that space/world into what you want -- with no instructions and no one else's predefined goals. It's limitless and exciting for kids. It's all about exploration, discovery, and imagination – a lot like LEGOs, blocks, and other building/making materials that kids have played with for years.
In Minecraft, my boys have created theme parks with elaborate roller coasters; cities; vast, fantastical lands of ice, snow, forests, and oceans; a myriad of cool buildings tricked out with libraries, lighting fixtures, different interior and exterior textures, and forms; and grand landscaping designs. The list goes on and on. Typically, there's a story to go along with what they're making, like, "I'm building a mansion for the emperor king who rules the land of…." and the story goes on between the two of them. They feed each other ideas that make their building experiences more well-developed and intricate. On a recent vacation to the West, my oldest son noted the adobe architecture in the city we were in and said he was going to think about how he could translate this in Minecraft. He studies the architecture around us in NYC, always referencing that he wants to see if he can replicate what he's seeing in the real world in his Minecraft creations. It's tapped his attention to details and observation skills and has allowed him to apply what he's seeing and learning in his creations.
It's important to know there are different modes of play – "creative" and "survival" modes. As a parent, it's important for you to understand what the different modes allow kids to do and determine what's right for your child at his/her age. I've captured a lot about "creative" mode above. In "survival" mode, when night falls, you retreat into your creation to hide from the mobs of monsters: spiders, zombies, and skeletons spawned by the game to pursue you (all very pixelated and not very visually scary at all). With sword or bow in hand, you lock up your goods and battle until daybreak when the sunlight sends them back into hiding. There is no blood or gore, but if you don't like this for your child, you can restrict play to "creative mode." With respect to safety, I chose to turn off any group chat functions so my kids aren't interacting via text/chat with other online players they don't know.
Kids are so rapt with the game that they are uncovering and consuming any and all information that will provide them with new ideas, hints, and tips on how to achieve what they want to do in the game. There are innumerous online forums, videos, offline camps, and groups tapping into Minecraft and sharing ideas about Minecraft design. My boys discovered the Minecraft books and devoured them. Check out our Minecraft Book List for more information.
Minecraft: Essential Handbook - This book provides the basics on how to get started and how to find resources; make a shelter; craft tools, armor, and weapons; and protect yourself from monsters in the world of Minecraft.
Minecraft: Redstone Handbook - This has been my boys' favorite so far because they really wanted to figure out how to leverage "Redstone," a building material you can mine and gather in the game. In the Handbook, experts explain how to work with Redstone, including mining, smelting, and using repeaters, circuit components, and circuit designs. It also provides tips from game creator Notch himself – which they found to be very cool. After reading it, they went right to the game to see how they could apply what they learned. They figured out how to connect Redstone circuits to light up a city they created and how to create a flip switch to turn lights on and off. That's early engineering thinking, and independent research meets creativity in a video game. It had a big wow factor for them – and for me, too.
Minecraft: Combat Handbook – This provides helpful information for kids playing in "survival" mode.
Minecraft: Construction Handbook - This guidebook is full of great ideas for unlocking your builders' creativity.
For gamer kids, the game-and-book combo are a great way to connect the dots to reading, too!
As you've probably gleaned, I love the freedom of expression and creativity Minecraft provides, and it's packed with a whole lot more. My quick recap of the valuable attributes associated with Minecraft gameplay includes:
• Develops early programming thinking
• Taps into design thinking – scale, proportion, symmetry, and aesthetic elements of design
• Involves/allows for collaboration
• Inspires storytelling
• Requires problem solving
• Encourages independent thinking, information gathering, and application of acquired knowledge — i.e. "Now that I know what the game can do, let me apply it in new and different ways."
• Appeals to all kinds of kids – those who like to design and build things, those who love to go on quests, and those who like to tinker, explore, and experiment
• It offers open-ended, creative play and develops the imagination
• Allows for social interaction and collaboration
The books and game together are chock-full of fun and offer kids loads of opportunities to turn their big ideas into visually cool creations.
Happy Playing, Reading, and Mining!
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