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School of hard blocks: educating children through gaming

Friday, 3 May 2013 13:19 GMT By Dave Owen

Penelope Trunk, an American mother, has allowed her sons to educate themselves with video games. David Owen speaks to the woman who used Minecraft as a spelling tool.

“Why aren’t people worried that kids go to school all day, then come home and do homework for hours? It’s unnatural. If you look at what’s better for kids, homework or video games, it’s video games. Hands down.”

Remember the days when your mum insisted that you skip school and play video games all day? No, neither do I. Yet for the children of Penelope Trunk, controversial US blogger and entrepreneurial life coach, it’s an everyday reality.

While other children traipse off to school five days a week and occupy their evenings with homework, Penelope’s two sons, aged seven and ten, remain at home on their Wisconsin farm, their education left entirely in their own hands. More often than not, this involves playing Minecraft.

“I started doing research into school reform because I was so pissed off about the state of our schools,” Penelope tells me. “All the research pointed to homeschooling. It pointed to self-directed learning. Kids learn best when you let them learn how they want. So I took my kids out of school and, surprise surprise, they wanted to learn by playing video games all day.”

As a product of a traditional education, I was ready to balk at Penelope’s contentious approach to homeschooling. Yet it soon becomes clear that it isn’t merely a fanciful protest against a struggling US education system. Penelope is adamant that video games are giving her sons a more effective education than they would receive in school.

“One of the scariest things I did was not teach my son to read. He learned to read from video games. The only way he could tell when a Pokémon was going to evolve was to find out at what level that happens. He figured it out. In Minecraft the only way to progress is to enter commands. If they don’t learn it, then they can’t get where they want to go. My son learned to spell from Minecraft.”

It’s a bold claim that has been met with derision from some quarters. Indeed, it’s difficult to believe that as a child I could have learned to read from the likes of ‘But our Princess is in another castle!’

Penelope is defiant, and attributes much more to video games than just teaching her sons to read and write. Her sons have learned how to run their own small businesses from their game-playing experiences.

“If you think about it, all video games are little businesses. They have their own economies. You have to figure out how to get people to do what you want.” As a result, Penelope’s sons now earn their own money to put towards their gaming costs. “My older son sells pigs and goats, my younger son sells eggs. It’s not enough to buy all the stuff they want, but they contribute.”

The theory begins to make sense when I realise that, although Penelope believes unequivocally in the educational value of video games, her ideas are not exclusive to them. It’s about incentivising children to learn in a way that they find engaging – something that can’t always be said about school. Brimming with natural curiosity, children will seek learning on their own terms. Video games just happen to be an appealing option.

“If you worry about kids making bad choices, the first thing you should do is give them the option to make good choices. Clearly you can learn to type faster by playing a video game than what they teach in school. Clearly kids will learn to problem solve if you put them in front of a video game instead of spoon-feeding them class material and giving them a test.”

Good problems, bad problems

I begin to worry that we’re dealing too much in generalisations. While Penelope’s sons favour games with more pronounced educational and creative virtues such as Minecraft, can other genres, such as shooters, be educational? Penelope prickles at the question.

“What are good problems and what are bad problems? Anything that makes you solve problems and work hard to figure out the game and progress is educational.”

In some ways it sounds like a contemporary take on archaic walkabout rites of passage, the classic Pokémon trainer leaving home scenario, liberal parenting gone mad. Certainly Penelope will have a hard time convincing people of her methods. Statistics show that only 58% of parents believe that video games are educational.

“They’re morons,” says Penelope of the sceptical. “Those parents are morons. There’s plenty of academic research that shows the educational value of video games. What’s the difference between a book and a video game? If your kid reads books for 18 hours a day, is he a social loser? Yes. So in the same way if your kid plays 18 hours of video games a day, maybe your kid’s a loser. But there’s no difference in the value of the material.”

In fact, Penelope doesn’t believe that kids will choose to play video games all their waking hours, in the same way that she doesn’t think it’s healthy for them to be stuck in school all day. “I think the best thing you can do is respect a kid’s ability to choose how they want to learn. Kids won’t play 14 hours a day. Their necks will hurt, they’ll want to eat, play with their friends.

“Why aren’t people worried that kids go to school all day, then come home and do homework for hours? It’s unnatural. If you look at what’s better for kids, homework or video games, it’s video games. Hands down.”

While tough to swallow at first (for parents, at least), Penelope’s views are merely at the more extreme end of a nascent body of research.

In February, PhD students at The University of Padua published a paper showing that playing action video games (they tested using Rayman Raving Rabbids) helps dyslexic children to read more quickly. Penelope herself refers on her blog to a study from Iowa State University which shows that surgeons made fewer procedural errors if they played as little as three hours of video games a week. The Netherlands-based Leiden University has just released a study showing that FPS games can improve memory capacity of players.

Such research is not enough to vindicate Penelope’s idiosyncratic approach to homeschooling. Yet beneath the abstruse ideas and spiky rhetoric, it offers a fascinating, relevant case study.

Penelope sums it up for me. “Kids learn best when they’re self-directed. All learning is about incentivising a child. Each of us is an excellent learner if we’re learning in a way that interests us. For kids, that can be video games.”

It’s hardly time to dismantle our school systems and replace textbooks with PlayStations. Certainly there needs to be more thinking in terms of differing financial circumstances, availability of working parents, the dangers of children left to their own devices in different environments. However, it seems that there is something to be said for the promotion of heterogeneous learning, and video games are perfectly positioned to play a prime role.

Games have been stigmatised for so many years as the scourge of youth in countless different ways, but Penelope’s success with her own sons, coupled with a growing body of mainstream research, shows that it might be time to reconsider how we think about the application of video games in our children’s lives.

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8 Comments

  1. Telepathic.Geometry

    There’s a spelling mistake in the opening bit. “…has allowed her sons to self-educate…” No “d”.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    Bollocks. Cheers.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Telepathic.Geometry

    No bother, good to see you’re still alive. Hope you’re settled in to the new place and all is well.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. OlderGamer

    Unless she has 30+ kids I bet her homeschooling has a lot better teacher to student ratio then the average class size in school. That has to count for something. Plus you remove the entire back and forth of social pressures. While her approach is a headline eye catcher, there are likly some solid reasons why it is working, why home school in general works. However homeschooling also comes at some costs.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    Cheers. Yep, still breathing! We haven’t moved just yet. Looking to do it in mid-July.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. G1GAHURTZ

    Interesting.

    This would have to be a very slow method, unless it was supplemented with regular books.

    Sure, I probably learned a lot of reading from The Dandy, and Transformers comics, but there was new content on a weekly basis.

    I’ve actually taken my PS3 into class before to teach my students English, but I’m not sure if I’d do it every day.

    (I had the students play a FIFA tournament, then interview each other on camera, as if it was a real post match interview. They had to use the past tense correctly to talk about what happened in the match. It was also an opportunity to practice speaking with more confidence.)

    #6 2 years ago
  7. silkvg247

    What’s that about typing commands into minecraft to progress? I don’t understand.

    I think games can be educational but it does depend on the game.

    “Education” is a broad term that people usually categories into the main studies of maths, physics, so on. But school doesn’t teach you common sense or improve your reaction time, or how to strategise or manage resources.. whereas games and virtual worlds can.

    I think it’s decent rationale to allow a child to improve their reading via games – as long as it’s a text heavy, well translated game. Like a good RPG. Pokemon is actually valid, quite a bit of text if you talk to the NPCs.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Mjorh

    If this thing happens , everytime if sth happpens in schools they’re gonna blame games !

    A: He threatened me with his gun !

    B: But he was chasing me with a knife!

    Teachers or whatever : yeah this is becouse of videogames ,the more they play the more get pissed off !
    +
    Believe me whatever happens they blame videogames

    #8 2 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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    The first print run of Rodea the Sky Soldier on Wii U will come with the Wii version packed in, NIS America has confirmed. The publisher confirmed today in a press release that anyone who buys the first run of the retail version of Rodea the Sky Soldier on Wii U will find the Wii […]

  • Unreal Tournament 4 lets modders sell cosmetic items to players

    Unreal Tournament 4 is a game built with the help of the modding community. So it’s only natural that it will feature a marketplace where all cosmetic items can be sold. Epic Games has confirmed that it will allow modders from the community to sell the cosmetics items they’ve created on the game’s marketplace. The […]

  • D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is coming to PC – rumour

    SWERY 65 has shown off D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die running on PC at GDC this week, teasing that a possible port may be on the way. D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is SWERY 65′s latest project. An episodic detective affair, D4 came out on Xbox One last September and utilised Kinect as its main […]

  • Valve’s Lighthouse, VR controllers and more explained

    Valve’s less-talked about prototype VR controllers and its Lighthouse technology have been shown in more detail. When HTC announced Vive, the VR headset it’s working on with Valve, it mentioned “base stations” and ergonomic controllers. Now we know what they meant by that. The controllers are still in prototype phase, and will look better when […]

  • Listen to two professional Counter-Strike players explain why Dust2 is so popular

    Hear what makes iconic Counter-Strike map Dust2 one of the most popular maps in shooter history from two former eSports players. Sal “Volcano” Garozzo and Shawn “FMPONE” Snelling are both retired professional Counter-Strike players who are currently working as designers. At GDC this year, the pair hosted a panel titled “Community Level Design for Competitive […]

  • Core Morpheus hardware locked in, no plans for wireless version

    Sony has finalised the core hardware for its VR headset Project Morpheus, and does not currently plan on releasing a wireless version. SCE Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida spoke to Gamespot at GDC and confirmed that the core hardware of Morpheus is “pretty much done” but that “lots of tweaks and improvements” are still being […]

  • Watch the full Phil Spencer keynote from GDC 2015

    The full GDC 2015 keynote of Xbox boss Phil Spencer is now available to watch. In case you missed last nights’s Phil Spencer keynote at GDC 2015, the whole thing has been made available to watch on YouTube. The address is titled “The Future of Gaming Across the Microsoft Ecosytem,” and it’s where Spencer announced […]

  • Elite: Dangerous won’t be “dumbed down” for Xbox One

    The Xbox One version of Elite: Dangerous will in fact be the same as the PC one. Elite: Dangerous developer Frontier came out on stage last night at GDC to announce the game making its console debut on Xbox One. Some have feared that the port would not provide the same experience as the PC […]

  • Virtual reality: by gum, it’s really happening

    Virtual reality has exited the realm of peripheral gimmick and turned into something that just might go mainstream. VR has an uphill battle ahead of it. The tech is going to be expensive, and there are a number of problems that need to be solved before it could be considered an inclusive technology (motion sickness, […]

  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes Game of the Year at GDC Awards 2015

    And the winner is: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor beat out Alien: Isolation, Bayonetta 2, Destiny, and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft to win Game of the Year at the Game Developer’s Choice Awards 2015. Elsewhere in the awards, Ustwo’s mobile hit Monument Valley was a stand-out favourite, with wins in the Innovation, […]

  • Alien: Isolation was prototyped in third-person – video

    Alien: Isolation is one of the most effectively scary triple-A games in years, but it didn’t start off a perfect creation of pure terror. Creative Assembly prototyped Alien: Isolation in third-person perspective before they nailed down the final approach. The developer revealed this during a GDC 2015 presentation, and it’s a good reminder that games […]

  • Madden 15 added to EA Vault

    Madden 15 is now included in EA’s all-you-can-eat subscriber service. Madden 15 is the ninth game to be added to the EA Vault, a stash of games available on demand for EA Access subscribers. It's still Madden Season for EA Access members – Madden NFL 15 is now in The Vault for all members. Go […]

  • Source Engine 2 doesn’t have hidden costs or royalties – but is Steam exclusive

    Three major engines went free at GDC 2015, and each of them is monetising in a different way. There’s been a heck of a lot of discussion about development tools and the costs associated with them during GDC 2015. First Epic announced that Unreal Engine 4 would be free, bar royalities on successful releases. Then […]

  • Final Fantasy creator hates sequels

    Final Fantasy, a byword in prolific franchises, was created by a man who hates sequel. Final Fantasy games are famous for being reinvented with each core release, and it was not until series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi began to withdraw from the franchise after Final Fantasy 9 that we started seeing regular sequels and spin-offs. Speaking […]

  • Guardian complaints led to the closure of Destiny’s Loot Cave

    Destiny players are to blame for the shuttering of the much loved Loot Cave. Early in Destiny‘s history, many players got hugely excited about the “Loot Cave”. Accessible shortly after starting the game for the first time, this high-volume spawn point allowed players to stand in one place, taking out waves and waves of low-level […]

  • Xbox and PC games boss Phil Harrison to leave Microsoft – rumour

    Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business VP and EMEA head of games Phil Harrison is rumoured to have thrown in the towel. Microsoft has not issued a statement on Harrison’s alleged departure, despite repeated questioning by press at GDC 2015. Instead, word comes via multiple sources speaking to GamesIndustry at the show. According to the rumours, Harrison […]

  • Metal Gear Online commentated trailer explains stuffed dog – but not invisibility

    Metal Gear Online developer Kojima Productions has provided significantly more insight into how the multiplayer side of The Phantom Pain works. Metal Gear Online is the online multiplayer component of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. Konami hasn’t shared a great deal about it yet, but we did see a very cool Metal Gear […]

  • Elite: Dangerous Xbox One trailer shows off space MMO

    If Elite: Dangerous looks this good on Xbox One we have nothing to complain about. Microsoft revealed Elite: Dangerous is coming to Xbox One this year during its GDC presentations today. We don’t know very much about the port, but I suppose we ought to have expected it; Frontier Developments has a very close relationship […]

  • Battletoads to appear in Shovel Knight Xbox One

    A Battletoads remake must be on the horizon. Right? Right?? The Battletoads will appear in the upcoming Xbox One version of Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games revealed today. The Battletoads drop in for a fight! Shovel Knight is headed to Xbox One and meets up with @RareLtd brawling trio! pic.twitter.com/OCQIuWbH3W — Yacht Club Games (@YachtClubGames) […]

  • The Division pre-alpha footage leaks, Ubisoft says it’s well out of date

    The Division fans finally got a look at Ubisoft’s MMO this week, but the publisher has said the footage is not in any way representative. Pre-alpha footage of the The Division was leaked this week, but has since been thoroughly smacked down by takedown notices. All that remains are a few screenshots and a GIF: […]

  • Microsoft HoloLens designer killed in hit and run accident

    Very sad news out of Redmond this week, as Mike Ey was killed in a tragic accident. Ey, 30, was one of the key project designers on Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset. He was killed on Saturday morning in a rear-end collision. The driver of the second vehicle fled the scene but was tracked down by […]

  • AMD throws support behind VR with new low-latency anti-nausea tech

    GPU manufacturer AMD has released a new SDK compatible with “a broad set of VR devices”. Called LiquidVR, the tech is designed to “bring better content, comfort, and compatibility to VR applications” including games, simulation, entertainment, education, social media, travel, medicine, real estate and ecommerce, apparently. AMD said maintaining comfort and realism in VR environments […]

  • Danganronpa 3 in the works, but a long way off yet

    A new Danganronpa is happening. Danganronpa 3 is in the very, very early production stages, writer Kodaka Kazutaka has confirmed. Nothing about the project is “set in stone”, Kazutaka told Polygon, so there are no details to share yet; the characters and story may change several times before being finalised. The writer said he’s weighing […]

  • Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare MLG Pro League 2015 schedule announced

    Major League Gaming has announced the full schedule for the 2015 Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare MLG Pro League. The eSpots firm revealed two more seasons of Pro League, a live Relegation tournament for Season Three, and a season ending World Championship with $250,000 up for grabs You can watch all the action on MLG.tv […]

  • Happy Birthday PlayStation 2, you are almost old enough to drive

    Amidst all the GDC 2015 hoopla today, we forgot to wish PlayStation 2 a Happy Birthday. The system turned 15 years old today, going by its March 4, 2000 launch date in Japan. It was released in the west that autumn, and had shipped 100 million units in less than six years post launch. PS2 […]

  • Here’s what the final version of Valve’s Steam Controller looks like

    A look at the updated Steam Controller has surfaced via a hands-on post from Polygon. Valve said what you see in the images below is the final version of the controller. The controller has gone through numerous revisions since it was first revealed, but it seems Valve has decided on two touch pads which work […]

  • The Sims, SimCity developer closed down

    The Sims 4 developer Maxis has been shuttered, EA has confirmed. The Sims, SimCity and the rest of the Sim franchise has traditionally been helmed by Maxis, which had its flagship studio in Emeryville, California. Now EA has confirmed with Kotaku that this studio is being closed. “Today we are consolidating Maxis IP development to […]

  • Gigantic MOBA coming to Windows 10 and Xbox One with cross-play

    Today during GDC 2015, Microsoft announced that the new IP from Motiga called Gigantic will be cross-play enabled. Slated for Windows 10 and Xbox One, the five-on-five third-person battle arena game allows the player to select from an array of heroes with distinctive powers and play styles. Players will then make their way through areas […]

  • Here’s a look at Unreal Tournament DirectX 12 gameplay

    Epic Games is creating Unreal Tournament using Unreal Engine 4 running on DirectX 12, which Microsoft says “sets a new bar for visual fidelity.” DirectX 12 is a single API developers can access across Windows devices, which can result in a 20% improvement in performance over DX11 running on the same machine. The Unreal Tournament […]

  • Wireless adapter for Xbox One controllers out later this year

    Microsoft announced at GDC 2015 today it will that all wireless Xbox gaming accessories will be designed for and supported on both Xbox One consoles and Windows 10 PCs moving forward. Later this year, a wireless adapter will be released, allowing current Xbox controllers and future devices to be used wirelessly on PCs. This will […]

  • Microsoft offers up more details on Spencer’s GDC 2015 talk

    Microsoft has provided more details on Cross-Buy functionality between Windows 10 and Xbox One as well as the Xbox Live SKU and other announcements made during Phil Spencer’s talk today. During the session, the head of Xbox shared “the next step” in the company’s plans for a unified platform across all Windows 10 devices which […]