Can Playful Learning Prepare Kids to Be Better Global Citizens?

by Jordan Shapiro
March 29, 2016
Photo by Anna Thornton

Flickr / Anna Thornton

Back in January, I joined the Joan Ganz Cooney Center as a Senior Fellow. It is a perfect fit. I’ve been a fan of the Center’s work for a while, writing regularly about its research reports for my Forbes Blog. Many of the folks at the center have also been fans of my work—in particular, the Mindshift Guide to Digital Games and Learning that I created in partnership with the Cooney Center back in 2013-14.

I wrote that guide to try and persuade teachers and parents to consider incorporating video games into schools. At the time, there was still a pervasive stigma left over from the industry’s early years. Digital gaming was mostly viewed as a superficial leisure activity or a waste of time; it rotted the brain. Video games were damaging distractions, immoral temptations, the ultimate bad influences.

Ironically, many of the teachers I aimed to persuade were actually playing casual games on their own smart phones or tablets regularly—Angry Birds, Words with Friends, Candy Crush; Pew reported in 2008 that more than half of adults in the United States played video games. The problem was that the residual voices of early game controversies still loomed large. Games came with a lot of baggage.

Did you know that in the 1980s Parent-Teacher Associations pushed for legislation that would forbid arcades to open too close to schools? And the video game console’s mechanical ancestor, the pinball machine, had been banned citywide in 1942 by New York’s Mayor Fiorella LeGuardia. Decades later, encouraging people to embrace learning through digital play often felt like an impossible uphill battle against history.

In a way, I was trying rebrand an activity that had the worst possible reputation. Most parents and teachers saw games as the great antagonist—an evil villain. They thought games kept kids from reading, writing, and playing outside. And now that the entire arcade had been smooshed down into a pocket-sized device that kids could carry anywhere, some folks even began to worry that the digital-world would destroy everyday social interactions.

But I saw something remarkable when I watched my own children absorbed into games like Minecraft. In these virtual environments, my kids seemed to be playing the same sort of role-playing and make-believe games that my friends and I played in our youth. In Center City Philadelphia, I remember how back alleys and empty lots were transformed into space stations, medieval castles and secret spy lairs. We all learned to cooperate creatively as we were forced to navigate the social dynamics among headstrong friends.

Nowadays, in a world where children can’t wander along urban sidewalks the way we did, it’s encouraging to see that they still find a space in which to practice social interactions through imaginative play. Immersed in Minecraft’s blockworld and connected to their friends by Skype, my kids live out epic adventures. They participate in every day rites of passage like the ones dramatized in classic movies like Stand By Me and books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

It turns out the game-world is not the site of passive consumption and moral temptation that the curmudgeons describe. Instead, it is playful, experiential, and creative; it features all the ingredients that decades of educational research tell us make for quality learning. And that’s why I’ve spent years encouraging adults to see the digital world not as an alternative space into which kids escape, but rather as a primary location in which children require the guidance and mentorship that teachers and parents can provide.

Nowadays, the video game stigma has dissipated. White House Education Game Jams are a regular occurrence; and there’s no longer a question about whether or not digital games belong in the classroom. The adoption of video games for learning, at this point, seems inevitable. Thus, I’ve shifted my focus: from promoting game-based learning, to influencing the way in which playful digital media for learning is designed and implemented for long-term use.

I believe there is an enormous opportunity immediately in front of us. Schools are ready to change. A true digital overhaul of classroom technology is just around the corner and we can ride it, incognito like a Trojan Horse, if we just ask the right questions. How do we make sure that it is not just an infrastructural transition, but also a pedagogical transition? How do we leverage the flexibility that comes in times of transition to make sure that not only do the technologies of learning change, but also the non-technological practices and values? How do we ensure that new tools are actually used to improve education practices—to fill real social, emotional, cultural and cognitive gaps—rather than just to sustain more of the same practices in ever more profitable and efficient ways?

We need to leverage video games and new digital technologies to shift the educational landscape in the United States. But we also need to expand our perspective beyond national borders. It is unfortunate that education in the U.S. remains fiercely localized. Even efforts to create national standards (like the Common Core) have been met with resistance at the state level. Many folks just don’t seem to understand that we cannot prepare children for global economy from within a regional educational paradigm. At a time when the borders that grew out of 19th Century nationalism and held fast during the industrial progress of the 20th Century can no longer function in impermeable ways, our schools remain regrettably bogged down in epistemological constructs that reinforce division, rather than global comradery. This is a gross failure. Whether we understand education to be about cultivating a skilled labor force or a fulfilled citizenry, we must acknowledge that the social, political, and economic world for which students are preparing is now a global one.

As a Senior Fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, I’ll be looking in detail at the way digital learning games and new interactive information technologies can be implemented so as to promote equality, inclusivity, identity, tolerance, and global citizenship. Games in and of themselves are not the point. They could easily become just as boring and ineffective as standardized tests (I’ve done game-based hazmat trainings; they were not fun). The important thing is that we figure out how to embrace the scalability of digital technologies in order to enable creative, exploratory, and playful learning across socio-economic lines, across traditional subject divisions, across geo-political borders, and in intergenerational multiplayer modes.