Three Lessons from My Son on Minecraft and Learning
Why do some kids spend their time killing each other while others engineer epic builds in Minecraft? The educational benefits of Minecraft are celebrated, particularly for developing tech skills, but not every kid is unleashing her inner MacGyver. It doesn’t really matter if Minecraft is good for learning if your kid isn’t engaging in complicated builds, coding, engineering or collaboration online. After all, there’s more variety in Minecraft play than any game on this planet.
Minecraft was a big part of my son becoming an avid coder, a positive digital citizen, and an aspiring engineer. He started playing Minecraft in middle school with his friends, and he played in a server that the school hosted. What really got him excited about being creative in Minecraft was discovering YouTube videos of epic builds. Eventually he applied to join a Minecraft server community hosted by some of the heroes he discovered on YouTube; he leveled up in his building, as he collaborated with and learned from others in the community. A few years later, he was exposed to coding in high school, and decided to explore coding in Minecraft and build a massive binary calculator with redstone (a special type of Minecraft block that acts like an electrical wire and allows players to create circuits and other machines). In the summer, he helps out in the family business, working in the Connected Camps Minecraft server teaching kids to code.
Here’s three lessons I learned growing up with my son about unleashing learning in Minecraft:
It’s the people, stupid
Discovering a community of inspiring Minecraft builders was key to my son deciding he wanted to up the ante in Creative mode. Even better was when he was able to join a server and learn from them directly. Research shows that connecting with inspiring mentors is one of the biggest factors in kids’ learning. Whether it’s a friend, a YouTuber, parent, or a teacher, the more exposure kids have to Minecrafters doing challenging builds and engineering in the game, the more likely they will be to absorb that influence.
If your Minecrafter only seems to be watching silly Minecraft videos, introduce them to someone like sethbling or St3venAU who engineer cool stuff in Minecraft. And if you’re a parent who is happy to let your kids explore new servers, find a safe Minecraft server that is moderated, friendly, and populated by Minecraft tech experts. It’s people, not a game that inspires kids to reach for new heights.
Looking beyond the game
One of the first major creations that popped up in the Connected Camps Minecraft server was a gallery of pixel art featuring Pokémon and other beloved characters. Kids love to connect the dots between different interests, and this amplifies enthusiasm and creative energy. Pokémon fans will labor over massive and perfectly scaled Pokémon pixel art.
It reminds me of when my son decided he wanted to create his school projects in cake. After an orange buttercream California Mission model came a strawberry shortcake Mt. McKinley, and a quarry made with with chocolate cake and blue jello. In other words, Minecraft is just like cake! It can make anything a little bit more appealing.
Kids who might not be otherwise motivated to engineer complex creations might be inspired to build a TNT cannon, submarine, or trap doors as part of an imaginative role playing scenario or video they are creating. On our Connected Camps servers, our counselors are constantly inviting kids to connect to a wide range of interests, like books, super heroes, roller coasters, and sports. And if they do pick up some tech skills, they can be applied in Minecraft, like when my son picked up some coding and realized he could bring it to Minecraft. The key is to always be building connections between what can be done in-game and skills and interests in the wider world.
Projects with purpose
Games are engaging because they have clear goals and constant challenge. Minecraft has these gameplay elements in Survival mode, but they don’t necessarily lead kids to develop tech and other skills. If kids are going to engage in an engineering or building challenge, it’s much more motivating for them if there is a goal and some rules or guideposts. You might have one of those rare kids who will sit by themselves and decide to create something awesome, but most kids need to be motivated by competition, connecting with others, or being recognized. As a parent you know what motivates your child — getting the the gold star, looking cool to their friends, feeling part of a community, or having their work celebrated.
When my son realized he could give back in Minecraft by teaching younger kids, and receive volunteer hours on top of it, it rekindled his interest in leveling up in the game. Minecraft became connected to a higher purpose. In our Minecraft coding camps and courses, we help kids program turtles to do useful things that are value to the community, like sweeping up trash, or delivering mail. Another way we motivate kids is through friendly competition through collaborative build challenges, like when kids formed groups to build submarines using a particular set of materials. Very few kids want to learn coding for coding’s sake, or to get a job ten years from now. They aren’t motivated unless there’s a more immediate point to it.
Could a teacher be impressed with a school assignment in Minecraft? Could you delight family and friends with a Minecraft video? Is there a fun family activity that you all can do together? Can you bring together some Minecraft friends for a build competition? The best kind of learning happens when kids are socializing or pursuing something they care about and don’t even realize they are learning.
Need some inspiration?
Here are a few place you can look for Minecraft activities and challenges for your family:
- Minecraft craft and party ideas for families from Minemum
- Family-friendly Minecraft activities and challenges designed by Connected Camps staff and counselors.
- Minecraft themed projects created with the Scratch programming tool from the MIT Media Lab.
I’d love to hear from you about your experiences unleashing learning in Minecraft in your family. Any stories to share of challenges and successes? Sources of inspiration or motivation?