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Making a Game of It

Person playing a video game

March 24, 2020

Your kids’ schools are closed, and you’re working from home. Looking for some ideas to help all of you stay sane? Here’s how to engage your kids in something they love. 

In Matt Farber’s house over spring break, he, his wife and 9-year-old son were playing “Pandemic” – a board game that requires players to work together as a disease-fighting team to save the world. Farber’s role was as a dispatcher, his son was a medic and his wife was a quarantine expert.  

Playing a game about pandemics during a pandemic? Ironic, yes, but as Farber points out, it’s also relevant in the lessons it teaches.  

Matt FarberIt engenders a real teamwork mentality,” Farber says. “It's a cooperative game – not in the sense that everybody wins a soccer trophy for showing up. The game is more about ‘If we don't all work together to solve this one problem and strategize together, then we're not going to be able to succeed in solving this really difficult problem.’ 

Matt Farber, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Teacher Education at the University of Northern Colorado and an expert on game-based learning. 

As students and families prepare for some extended time at home during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he offers some insights, ideas and resources for making the most of that time.  

  1. Don’t worry that kids will forget everything. 
    Parents may be worried that while their kids are out of school, they’re losing ground. In the summer, that was sometimes called “summer slide.” 

    Farber says that research is showing that the notion of “summer slide” – where kids will forget everything over the summer – may actually be a myth.

    "
    I wouldn't get too hung up on the fact that your child is not in a physical building, (and worry) that means they're going to forget everything and next year everybody's going to be behind on their long division,” Farber says. Turns out, kids can learn math and literacy skills – along with social and emotional learning skills – as they follow their interests and hobbies outside of school, as well.  
  1. Be a learning broker
    One way to help kids – and something Farber says research actually shows parents do better than teachers – is to act as a “learning broker.”  

    Find out what your child is interested in  building with Lego bricks, cooking, gaming, whatever it is  then broker their interest and say, Well, why not check out this webpage, this YouTube channel, this game, this cooking podcast? You broker that affinity. Now is the time to do it. That's all learning. 

    Farber says this is called “apprenticeship learning,” and it’s how people have learned for hundreds of years. In the virtual world, it’s also called “HOMAGO” learning – an acronym coined about 10 years ago that means “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out.” HOMAGO is based on the research of Mizuko (Mimi) Ito and her colleagues who interviewed hundreds of youth and identified three areas where they were learning while using digital media: Hanging out with friends on social spaces, messing around with digital media, and geeking out with others who have like interests. 
  1. Think about screen time as a “third space.”
     “It's important to think about screens these days, especially now, as third spaces,” says Farber. 

    School and home are generally the first two spaces where kids spend time. The third space would be the playground (both physical and virtual), Farber explains, where kids play without adults.  

    “It's not Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. It's not basketball practice. It's more like going to a basketball court and playing HORSE with your friends. And you can't do that while we're socially isolated,” he says. 

    But screens can be part of that third space, especially helpful when kids can’t hang out in person with their friends. For example, a Chrome extension for Netflix allows people to have a Netflix watch party with their friends, and there are games like Minecraft  and Fortnite where you get to play with your friends, says Farber.

    But screens are also part of remote learning – something many schools are using during the COVID-19 closure

    “Remote learning may often be, generally speaking, screen time,” Farber says. “It could be synchronous, in real-time. My son had a clarinet lesson with his music teacher over Facetime. That's screen time. Screen time, for a large part, is a bit of moral panic.

    Farber says what is more important is what’s on the screen, or what kind of learning is happening on the screen.  

    “Our son watches this YouTube channel called Art for Kids Hub,” he says. And it's an art teacher in Utah who does a step-by-step art class where they draw pictures. My son puts the iPad down, and he has his pastels and crayons and art stuff out, and he follows along and draws pictures. 

    While Farber does have screen rules for his son at bedtime, he doesn’t worry too much about his screen time during the day. And, he points out, he gets to curate the apps his son uses. “I do get final say, and we encourage apps that evoke content creation  like coding on Scratch  not just content consumption.” 
  1. Know that games can impact emotion. 
    Part of Farber’s research looks at two types of media: Eudaimonic media (where you watch for insights into the human condition, like a sad movie) and Hedonic media (where you watch for pleasure or fun). “Hedonic media,” says Farber, “is media where you want to regenerate your emotional resilience and alleviate anxiety.” 

    He points to a blog and videos called “Screen Therapy: Movies and Games as Tools for Building Emotional Well-Being” (screentherapyblog.wordpress.com) by researcher Courtney Garcia, M.Ed. 

    “She plays a series of different video games, like Minecraft, Journey and Animal Crossing, and explains the power that games have emotionally with everybody, not just children. (She talks about) why we play games, and how it helps us form connections and understand how to cope with emotions,” he says. 

    For people who aren’t gamers, the idea that games help with emotions might be surprising.  

    Games are strong drivers of emotion because youre controlling the experience and you have the immediate consequence of your actions in that experience. It really boosts perspective taking (the ability to see beyond yourself). Playing games also evokes a palette of emotions people may not get in other forms of media, like books and television. 

    In a UNC Bear-In-Mind Podcast episode, Farber shared the story of a game that builds empathy. “That Dragon Cancer,” was created by a developer in Loveland whose 4-year-old son had terminal cancer. The video game is about the process of coping with grief. “There are lots and lots of games like this that have really heavy and deep emotional experiences. Playing games like that help people develop and practice emotional resiliency. It gives you a blueprint of how to work with these emotions,” Farber says.  

Virtual Options to Explore 

  • Anchor.fm. Several years ago, KUNC had a Silver AirStream in town where you could go inside and record your family history. Along similar lines, you can use a podcasting tool called Anchor.fm. “It's extremely easy to use,” says Farber. “Just drag and drop and add sound effects and the music. It works on all devices, and if kids are spending time with their grandparents, that's a pretty good time to record a family history. 

  • Art for Kids Hub (on YouTube). Kids can watch videos and draw along using their own art supplies.  

  • Do Ink is an inexpensive app that allows you to do animation, drawing and green screen videos, so you can pretend you’re somewhere else and make a recording.  

  • iThrive Games sponsored Game Design Studio, which was a summer program at UNC (read more on unco.edu). “Their work, like my work, is on games and learning, and social emotional learning, so they also provide guidance for parents to see different games that would be really appropriate to play now, given our circumstances – games that are educational but also help children's emotional resiliency,” he says.  

  • Kind Words is a game (set to lo fi chill music) that allows you to send and receive words of encouragement anonymously. “It's like social media without the toxicity,” says Farber. 

  • Minecraft: Education Edition. “You can log into an education specific version to download the world and lesson plans, and parents can tap into their child's affinity for the game and use it as an educational tool with all the support of Microsoft,” says Farber “It's the number-one game-based learning platform. There are worlds where kids can invite their friends and take virtual field trips. There are lesson plans that aren't in the commercial version.  
  • Online how-to videos. Use your browser search engine to help your child create a photo-scavenger hunt or learn skills they’re interested in, from knitting and cooking to video production. “And though these activities are enriching,” says Farber, “They probably will also be embedding some form of math and literacy.” 

  • Storylineonline.net is a collection of children's books read by celebrities, like Betty White readingHarry the Dirty Dog. 

  • Super Mario Maker 2 on Nintendo Switch allows you to make a Mario course, play it and share it. “There’s a lot of cognition that happens when you to build, create and share,” Farber says. 

  • YouTube Kids.“My son’s been playing on Minecraft the last few days, and there's a music note block. You tap it, and it makes a music note. If you stack it on 12 different types of blocks or so, it's a different instrument. He's connected it with red stone, which is this electronic circuitry, and he's able to basically create a music box.  

    Farber says his son watched “DanTDM” a big YouTuber on this child-friendly version of YouTube, to learn how to create the music box in Minecraft. 

Board Games 

“Being a gamer doesn't mean you have to be locked in the basement drinking orange soda and having a headset on playing World of Warcraft,” says Farber. Some of the board games he recommends: Scrabble, Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, Catan, HedBanz, Apples to Apples and Monopoly – most of which have developed multiple versions that can offer kids opportunities to experience the games differently – and create their own version.   

HedBanz, which is like a reverse charades with the card on your forehead, and you have to guess who you are, also has Disney HedBanz for example. Have kids play it a little bit and then it becomes a project to make their own version of it. And all you need are index cards or cardboard. You play Apples to Apples and then have the kid make their own deck of Apples to Apples. And then you play that the next day. And that's learning. You’re using the game as a tool to engage and to create deeper learning, and then it's creating playful way of approaching sometimes difficult content. 

Parent resources to explore: 

If you’ve got a little downtime at home, check out these resources for more information: 

—Written by Debbie Moors

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