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What is my child learning while playing video games every day?

Photo by Freya Dawson

This is a question many parents ponder, especially if their child is unschooled and gaming is a big passion for their child. It was a question that occupied my mind a lot while my two sons devoted months and months (years, actually) to projects in Minecraft, quests in World of Warcraft, designing spacecraft in Space Engineers and playing every Lego game that was ever made.

What were they learning in these countless hours of gaming? To be honest, it was sometimes hard to tell.

It’s only now they are older and I’ve got the benefit of the long view that the full richness of their learning is becoming apparent.

It’s become clear to me that my sons were developing skills, confidence and capabilities that transcend the world of gaming and that they are now applying to new passions.

Were they learning some of that essential school-type stuff?

When they were in the thick of their gaming years my main concern was figuring out what aspects of the school curriculum they were covering. We have to ask this question (What are my children learning?) to meet the requirements of homeschool registration.

I tried to figure out how much maths, English, science and all the other subjects they were covering by observing their play closely, getting involved in a lot of conversations, providing technical support and game guides and sometimes playing the games myself. It was a very mind-opening experience and I was regularly blown away by the depth of knowledge my sons were acquiring on a huge range of topics.

The more I watched my sons play, the more I saw the maths they were learning and the deep engagement with narrative, characters and different styles of communication that built their capabilities in English. Given the wide range of games that they played they were able to cover aspects of every subject area in the school curriculum. There was no shortage of curriculum objectives that I could tick off, but sometimes it took me a while to see them. It helped a lot to be able to compare notes with other unschooling parents.

We got through our homeschool registrations without any problems and without me ever having to impose limits on my son’s gaming or screen time or to pressure them into any sort of “bookwork”.

Were they actually learning a whole lot more than I realised?

Both of my sons started to develop other interests in their teenage years, and this is when I started to see the deeper learning that had come out of gaming. Learning that went way beyond the limited focus of the school curriculum.

They had always been encouraged to follow their interests and passions and they’d done that in depth. Their inner motivation had led them to tackle some really difficult games. I was often amazed by the difficulty of the games that they chose and the fierce determination that applied to mastering those games. They pushed through huge amounts of frustration and hard work to achieve their objectives. They vented their feelings and learned how to handle difficult emotions. They grew in confidence that they could master difficult challenges, finish quests and become highly skilled in game play.

On top of this self-confidence and sense of achievement they also developed amazing dexterity, coordination, problem solving skills, research skills, communication skills, stamina, sportsmanship and nurtured enduring friendships.

I also saw how gaming fueled their creativity and desire to build. My eldest son was often focused on the details of the rich fantasy worlds that he played in and became very absorbed in the music, the visual art and the stories. This drew him towards creating music, art and poetry. My younger son also loved the music and seemed to pick up a lot of detail about game design. He also learned a lot about trade, business and economic systems. In fact, he’s built his own online business for the last 4 years or so, starting at age 13.

Both of my sons have followed their inner motivation into more “academic” studies in their later teens and they have both taken up learning to play musical instruments with a passion. This is where I’m really seeing the unexpected benefits of all of that gaming. They’re both willing to take on difficult new challenges, such as learning the cello or piano and apply themselves to it with the same determination and commitment that they applied to gaming – and entirely self motivated. Nobody every reminds them to practice.

Coupled with their creativity, it’s been astounding how quickly they’ve progressed and developed in their music creation. Their highly developed manual dexterity is certainly very, very useful too. I was always amazed at how fast their fingers could move on their computer keyboards, and now I’m seeing the same dexterity applied to the piano, guitar and cello. It’s a joy to watch and hear the results.

I didn’t know exactly what my sons were learning when they were playing Minecraft but I’m so glad that I trusted their inner motivation and their innate desire to learn through play, exploration and creativity. There is so much more to interest-led and self-directed learning than just ticking the boxes of the school curriculum. The benefits are broad and deep and I hope they will sustain my sons through many new challenges and new passions and lead them into work that they love.

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Ed-Tech Talks brings together the best content in education technology industry from a wide range of industry thought leaders. We discuss everything about education, design and technology here, be it products, research, innovations, problems, or potential!

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Freya Dawson

Freya Dawson

I’m a parenting, unschooling and spiritual mentor and writer. I help parents live with their children without stress or struggle.

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