I made a choice last August that still has my friends and family shaking their heads and wondering if I’ve gone off the deep end. Frankly, there have been moments over the past six months when I’ve wondered about that too, asking myself what I was thinking when I decided last summer, with great energy and enthusiasm, that I would home school four boys this year.
In my defense, I had already been homeschooling my two sons for several years and adding two similarly-aged boys seemed manageable. I knew there would be difficult days, days when they would struggle to solve hard math problems or to write a decent essay. However, while these things have all happened, it turns out that the truly challenging part of homeschooling four boys hasn’t been helping them manage their learning curves; it’s been learning how to manage mine.
You see, I had strong opinions and big ideas at the beginning of the school year about how kids learn best: lots of reading, self-directed exploration, and hands-on activities and projects. So-called “educational” video games were nowhere on the list. However, as I realized that the two new boys had different learning preferences than my sons, I dug a little deeper into the educational research for ideas on how best to engage and inspire them, and found some compelling information that ultimately changed my curriculum for all four boys. Here’s what I learned:
1. For learning to be interesting it has to be hard, but not too hard. That’s why video games are so engaging to young minds – kids get to control the level of difficulty. Even though I usually have a pretty good idea of how hard something is for each boy, I’m not always right – only the learner truly knows where their edge is. The difference between me giving a timed math test or letting them choose a timed math game is enormous – both result in learning, but one is stressful and can result in tears, the other is exciting and fun.
2. Games teach spatial skills. Recent research indicates that one of the reasons students in the United States often lag behind in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning is because our students have weaker spatial skills – key for success in STEM-related fields. Hands-on building projects can also help develop three-dimensional thinking, but these projects require significantly more time and space, and can be pretty messy (a consideration for those of us with classrooms in our dining room).
3. Resilience is a key predictor of success in life. Those who can bounce back from failure more quickly are more likely to achieve their goals. There’s a big difference, however, between failing publicly (like answering a question incorrectly in class) and failing privately (like in a video game). Games allow kids to build up their “resilience muscles”, to test ideas and take risks that they wouldn’t if I were watching, and to internalize the idea that failure isn’t fatal.
To be clear, I’m not advocating an “all games” approach to learning – real-world projects, books, working in groups, and exploring nature are all very important, and comprise the majority of my kids’ learning time. I’ve found that educational and high-quality games are a valuable part of the mix, though.
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