Beyond 'Screen Time:' What Minecraft Teaches Kids

Kids can and should use the right kinds of video games to learn. 
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All video games are not created equal.

I wouldn’t recommend we encourage youth to play just any game. I doubt transferable skills are learned by repeatedly flapping a bird into a drainage tube. The best educational interventions are those that meet youth where they are and use the energy associated with that space to encourage learning.

So where are the youth? Minecraft.

Minecraft is one of the most popular games in the United States with over 100 million registered users. It's not as flashy as typical video games—the graphics are lo-fi and 8-bit. At first glance, the game play seems incredibly simple: In creative mode, the goal is to build structures in an open 3D environment. 

In this way, Minecraft is different than other video games because the object is to construct, not to tear down. It's a video game, but it can also be classified as a building toy. 

Parents are faced with difficult choices about technology. The prevailing wisdom is that “screen time” is bad for children. But can Minecraft be lumped in with the rest of the things that kids might do on a computer or phone?

Minecraft offers youth the opportunity to explore an environment that is not rule-based like the rest of their lives. “On Minecraft, you can do whatever you want,” a 9-year old Minecraft player told me.

Not only does the open-world nature of Minecraft give children the opportunity to be more creative, it allows them to feel like they have a sense of control over themselves and their environment.

It’s an implicit way for them to develop self-regulation skills that then transfer to offline spaces—through having this freedom to create on Minecraft, they learn how to identify and work towards offline goals like finishing class assignments or graduating from college later in life.

Playing Minecraft teaches kids useful skills. The most clearly visible are visuospatial reasoning skills—learning how to manipulate objects in space in a way that helps them create dynamic structures. Visuospatial reasoning is the basis for more abstract forms of knowledge like the ability to evaluate whether a conclusion logically follows from its premises.

Minecraft also helps youth learn how to collaborate to solve problems, and collaborative learning improves critical thinking skills that support motivation for learning.

Consider the boundless supply of youTube videos from new childhood heroes like users stampylongnose and iHasCupquake.

Their videos show kids that they can build complex structures and they set an expectation for the game culture. In other words, gameplay is about sharing knowledge and cooperating with your friends to build cool things.

Educators should take note and realize how they can leverage Minecraft. Some ideas include: letting kids share what they are building in the game and having them describe how they are interacting with their peers; setting up Minecraft hackathons where students who know how to mod can teach others how to do so; and devoting some class or after-school time to allowing kids to work on Minecraft-based assignments. It has been noted that Minecraft offers a way to bridge gaps between different kinds of learners, including autistic students.  

Parents: you might be sick of your kids asking to play Minecraft, but consider what the game is teaching them. Talk to them about what they are building and what they are learning. Encourage their cooperation with friends.

Where else are they learning some of these skills? Easily put: nowhere. When we encourage the enthusiasm they have for the game, we are also subtly communicating that we like for them to spend time creating, building, and cooperating with peers—values we want our children to develop as they work to reach their post-graduation goals.

 

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Rey Junco is an associate professor of library science in the Purdue University Libraries, specializing in how technology affects students, and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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