Last May, my school started using an "educational" video game to teach our disadvantaged, overweight, and obese students about nutrition. I put "educational" in quotes, as I was pretty skeptical at first.
El Paso Independent School District, with elementary schools in the second poorest zip code in the nation, has been the recipient of numerous technological grants. So, even though we're one of the poorest school districts, we're technologically sound. However, the thought of having students play a video game to learn about nutrition and make true behavioral changes seemed a stretch. After all, technology is a necessity, but what about children who already spend too much time in front of televisions, smart phones, game consoles and the Internet? Isn't that part of the obesity problem -- less physical activity due to increased screen time?
I'd read the articles on educational video games and learning. It made sense that, if children aren't motivated to learn about topics that aren't particularly interesting to them, it's best to educate them in a format that's interactive, familiar, and engaging. Plus I knew that many teachers are very uncomfortable teaching about nutrition when they may be overweight or conscious about their own eating behavior.
How to Get Student Buy-In
It is much easier to motivate students with video games that are fun. They respond better when it's less obvious or evident that education is the main focus -- and well-designed interactive learning programs achieve that. "Stealth learning" is critical.
I often remind our teachers that children born in the early 2000's have never known a world without video games and smart phones. And since the average gamer in the US is 35 years old, many of our children's parents are active gamers. It's not that we're uncomfortable with educational video games in the classroom; they've been used for years. Our concern is the lackluster quality of some of these ed-focused games, making them unable to compete with consumer games that students are accustomed to playing. So finding a convincing game that happens to be educational is a real win.
The Authentic Gaming Experience
The nutrition educational video game we let our students play paid off handsomely. Children were asking their parents to read nutrition labels and asking for healthy food instead of chips, and teachers were committed to losing those extra pounds. I'm all about video games and learning, but do your homework. As one example of a good "stealth" educational video game, check out this trailer for The Cooper Institute's Quest to Lava Mountain, part of the NutriGram program.
Making the Case for Video Games in the Classroom
One of the reasons I support video game use in our school is that gaming allows the player to make mistakes. It gives students the experience of working towards a goal, and the opportunity to explore their actions in a safe environment. These experiential forms of learning can be transferred to real world experiences. Losing in a video game is not considered a failure. Rather, it challenges a child to use experiential learning to reach the next level of the game. The more senses engaged, the better that concept(s) will be retained.
When considering educational video games, really take time to see if the game you're choosing for your school or organization is designed well, involves creative and critical thinking, and challenges the child to learn new skills. And while doing all these things, the best games will reinforce math, science, reading, history, environmentalism, social collaboration, health and wellness.