The Myth of the Minecraft Curriculum

In reality, the computer program "has about as much inherent educational value as an overhead projector."

Everyone loves to talk about how Minecraft, the popular computer game where players build structures out of blocks, is educational. Indeed, the hype isn’t limited to people who make Pinterest boards, use Minecraft in the classroom, or writers who argue that the game teaches spatial reasoning,  reading, computer programming and/or system administration. The parents I run into on a regular basis have also jumped on the bandwagon. Those conversations usually go something like this:

Parent: Do your kids play Minecraft?

Me: A little.

Parent: I hear it's educational.

When a parent says, "I hear it's educational," I imagine they are actually thinking, "I hear it’s a video game that I can let my kid play and not feel guilty." Okay, maybe some of them truly believe that their kids might learn something. But, as a popular Reddit user’s comment holds, "Minecraft has about as much inherent educational value as an overhead projector." In other words, Minecraft is not intrinsically educational. What is educational is having a passion.

When people talk about what their kids have learned from Minecraft, my observation is that it's almost never something a child has learned directly from the program; no one ever brags about how many monsters their child fought off, and people rarely gush about the types of structures their kid has built. Instead, they talk about everything Minecraft has inspired their kids to do. They read, they research, they problem solve—activities with real educational value.

But the problem isn’t that children would miss out on such learning without Minecraft; kids can glean those skills simply by having interests. The real problem is that parents think every activity needs to be educational to have value.

From the moment parents bring their babies home, they are bombarded with messages from marketers, family members, and pediatricians that toys must be educational, thanks in part to a series of studies beginning in the 1960s. In 1962, a group of scientists discovered that rats raised as pets were better at problem solving than those raised in cages. Building on this study, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that rats raised with other rats in large cages filled with lots of fun rat toys were significantly smarter than those raised in barren, isolated cages. Researchers concluded that children raised in “enriched” environments—which for the rats meant having lots of toys—would be smarter than those raised in “impoverished” ones.

So, extending rat behavior to that among humans, it stands to reason that the more “enriched” parents make their child’s environment, the greater an intellect that kid will develop. And now that children as young as 6 are prepping for college, who wouldn’t want to boost their youngster’s intellectuality early on? The result is that the idea of an “enriched environment” has been translated by many parents to mean an environment in which a child is always learning something concrete, be it an appreciation of classical music or the alphabet.

Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t really hold up. In their book, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn—And Why, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff write that there is no childhood equivalent to a rat raised in an isolated cage. And furthermore, children might actually learn more from experiencing nature rather than artificially enriched environments. In other words: Parents who really want their child to learn something should just send the kid outside.

I live in an apartment, as do many of the Minecraft-playing children I know, and for my kids the outdoors isn’t always easily accessible. Perhaps this obstacle accounts for some of the nation’s obsession with ensuring children are engaged in something educational 24/7 (including evenings, vacations, and holidays). As more people stay in cities to raise their families, fewer parents have the opportunity to shove their kids out the screen door to go play for a few hours. In my family’s case, at least, we’re inside in close quarters a lot of the time; each person is acutely aware of what the others are doing. And parents in these circumstances might assume that if their child is limited to doing something indoors, that something might as well entail building a bigger brain.

But perhaps that something should just be playing. The child psychologist Jean Piaget famously argued in 1936 that spontaneous, imaginative play leads to cognitive development. Kids, the theory goes, need to spend time playing super heroes, cooking pretend meals in pretend kitchens, or just inventing whatever comes to mind. I would add that, in addition to time and imagination, kids also need parents who don’t feel guilty about letting them play with wherever that combination of elements may take them simply because it might not look educational.

My family isn’t a Minecraft household, mostly because I don’t want to have fights with my 9-year-old about how often he can play the game. It helps that he didn’t seem all that into it the few times he did play it. My younger child, at 6 years old, is just learning what Minecraft is; she’s watched a few videos of it on YouTube while at friends’ houses, but so far hasn’t asked if she can play herself. This might be because right now both kids are really into iMovie.

My son discovered the video-editing program while watching me assemble family movies one day and then asked if he could take over. What I’d begun as a few clips hastily thrown together so I could get it done in a weekend grew, thanks to my son’s infinite patience and endless attention span, into carefully edited mock newscasts. Then, one Saturday, miserable weather forced my family and me to stay inside all day. The kids mysteriously disappeared downstairs for a few hours and then emerged in the afternoon, asking if my husband and I would like to see their nine-part TV series, which they’d written, acted in, and edited together. It even came  with a blooper reel. The series, of course, lacked some essential elements— a compelling plot that varied in interesting ways over the course of the series, for one—but what most impressed me was that all my kids needed to make this happen was a lazy Saturday with no plans.

Who cares whether iMovie is educational? The biggest takeaway was that my kids were proud that they’d created something with no adult involvement—something that was entirely their own. And they would have likely been just as proud creating something in Minecraft, or out of popsicle sticks or Legos. Did they learn anything that will help them get better test scores or improve their chances of getting into college? I hope not. I hope they spent that day doing something that was fun without being destructive. I hope that what they remember is being able to just hang out and be kids without worrying about whether they were going to get into a good college. And I hope that when they look back at their childhoods they think: Now, that was a fun Saturday afternoon.