George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

Play It Forward: New Xbox Games for Learning

Engaging and enriching younger players

October 24, 2011

Readers of this blog know that students are learning all the time, whether or not they're in school. Indeed, the vast majority of learning happens outside of school -- in homes, playgrounds, workplaces and so on. Play has a fundamental role in this learning, as great minds in education from Plato to Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky have recognized over the years.

In play, children explore their world, learn to interact with others and use their imaginations to discover ways to understand and predict the connections between actions and their consequences in the world. For young children, these play interactions provide the training wheels of scientific reasoning and language acquisition, which most early childhood educators use in one form or another to encourage their healthy development.

Nearly three decades of scientific research in games and learning have shown evidence that game play can help players develop a systemic understanding of world phenomena, creativity and strategic problem solving skills. In the sequence of solving complex problems, the act of playing engages players cognitively and emotionally, and assesses knowledge where it is highly relevant to those problems' solution.

In my work with Microsoft Studios, we acknowledge the power of play and its intellectually enriching value with what we call "playful learning," our approach to designing high quality, intellectually enriching, interactive experiences for children and their families using Kinect for Xbox 360.

Developmental Experiences

Kinect embodies "playful learning" in a portfolio of experiences which changes the relationship between children and the tools they learn with: television, books and games. "Kinect Sesame Street TV" takes the renowned educational television show and brings it to life by allowing children to meaningfully interact with their favorite Sesame Street characters.

With Kinect, children are invited to participate in early literacy in a dialogic form. For example, anyone who has ever seen a young child respond to Elmo or Grover inviting them to sing, dance or say their letters and numbers will now see what happens when the TV show is able to hear or see the child's responses, and scaffold their learning with feedback as a result.

Another aspect in which Kinect alters learning with TV experiences is by allowing players to use more of their senses in the process of learning. For example, "Kinect Nat Geo TV" blends the award-winning Nat Geo WILD TV shows with the intuitive Kinect for Xbox 360. This lets children use a situated learning approach to understanding the nuanced relationship that exists between the survival of grizzly bears in the wild, and the tiny army cutworm moth -- a connection one does not often think about when appreciating these magnificent and wonderful creatures -- by jumping into the shoes of a naturalist or even a bear in its authentic habitat. In this way, the experience fosters curiosity, bringing the habitats of wild animals into the living room and playfully encouraging players to explore, discover, learn and develop a love for the world and creatures around them. With "Kinect Nat Geo TV," we seek to inspire children and their families to become stewards of the planet.

Jump into Learning

"Project Columbia," the code name for another experience being designed in conjunction with the Sesame Workshop Curriculum team, is a new environment where active fun and literacy meet. Using Kinect for Xbox 360, "Project Columbia" invites children to use a more embodied learning approach to understanding texts by letting them jump into beloved storybooks and become part of the story themselves. Through full-body interactions, Xbox and Kinect bring the objects and characters in the books to life so that a child's playful interactions become foundational experiences for understanding the relationship between the words in text and their meanings, as well as their sounds. By letting kids jump into the books they read, "Project Columbia" seeks to develop in kids a lifelong love of books and reading so necessary for their literacy development.

Another new experience is called "Double Fine Happy Action Theater," a title developed by Double Fine Studios' world-renowned game designer Tim Shaffer. It is a series of play activities that encourage the youngest players to practice their gross motor skills and stretch their imagination in active ways. Designed to create an inclusive and highly accessible experience for the whole family, in "Happy Action Theater," children, their parents and even their grandparents can play in virtual ball pits, firework parades and even lava-filled volcanoes all within their living room. The "Happy Action Theater" experiences are digital toys and playscapes that capture the imagination of old and young alike. No rules, no menus, no instructions -- just play.

Through these and other new titles, Xbox 360 is continuing to broaden its children's portfolio with rich experiences that expand our definition of learning into something participatory and experiential.


Do you use video games in your classroom? How do you see these new experience like those described above changing the way students learn?

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  • Game-Based Learning
  • Literacy
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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