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New breed of interactive games puts cute in the curriculum

Caring for a digital pet or editing an online story can boost young children's progress

Caring for a digital pet or editing an online story can boost young children's progress

Whoever said computer games could not be touchy-feely? If you ever watched an EyePet being soaped, lathered, showered, blowdried, and rolling over to have its tummy tickled, you would be totally seduced.

Little children love pets and computer game designers certainly know how to make them cute. So it was with little difficulty that Derek Robertson, Learning and Teaching Scotland's national adviser for learning technologies, seemed to win over a roomful of early years teachers at last week's Scottish Learning Festival.

He was trying to convince them of the potential of EyePet, Nintendogs and a new computer program The Land of Me not just to help young children learn and practise skills on their own, but to see how they progress and enable them to control their own learning. And he had the underpinning psychology to back him up.

How can a games console help to create a "growth mindset" in a child, he asked, using the term from social psychologist and Stanford University professor Carol Dweck who spoke at last year's festival. It came down to the child's ability to assess what they were doing and to succeed.

For example, children's Nintendogs would not normally be allowed in school, but in some Aberdeenshire classes, they are positively welcomed. Michelle Law, a teacher shown on a video of Elrick Primary in Aberdeenshire, had little knowledge of how to use the Nintendo DS handheld console, but she had a few young experts in her class, whom she appointed "Top Dogs". They then acted as mentors, teaching the other children and, in no time at all, lots of children became Top Dogs.

It was amazing, Mr Robertson said, how the P2 children were able to make progress in games, how they showed an innate ability to learn and to see how to take it forward themselves. It was, he said, "self-directed learning" without adult intervention.

Educational psychologist Alan McLean was quoted as saying in his book, The Motivated School, that a lot of controlling feedback from adults in early learning could lead to unstable self-esteem.

"Children teaching each other Nintendogs was raising self-esteem," said Mr Robertson.

At Cathkin Nursery, in South Lanarkshire, children were shown learning to care for their Sony EyePets, to nurture and stroke them. Some nurseries had sent the program back, Mr Robertson admitted, but others, like Cathkin, used it "to fantastic effect", integrating it into their day and learning.

A child was seen drawing a picture, holding it up to a camera in the computer to show it to its EyePet, then the EyePet copied the child's drawing in front of his very eyes. The child was mesmerised.

At Elrick Primary, P2 children were making their own films, using Stop Motion - developing the mindset, he said, that they can be creative with ICT, use video cameras and edit it.

At Juniper Green Primary in Edinburgh, P5s were making their own 2Simple 2DIY, following instructions, setting up parameters, drawing, for example, a volcano, scanning it in and splitting it into a jigsaw for P1 children to build again. Similar work, Mr Robertson says, is going on in Perth and Kinross, Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire.

"The games manufacturers have taken the best of entertainment and used it for education," said Mr Robertson. A music program for the Wii helps children get to know the names of instruments and how to play them, while a new device called Kinect (due out in November for the Xbox) lets them control and play with a little tiger, simply by jumping around on a mat.

Finally, Mr Robertson demonstrated a new piece of software, "a beautiful world that could", he said, "be at the heart of learning in a lot of nurseries".

The Land of Me, designed with John Siraj-Blatchford, education professor at Swansea University, had the nostalgic, safe feel of the best of children's picture books. But children can interact with it, type instructions to choose size, shapes or colours of characters and edit the text - all "set in the children's cultural framework", as Mr Robertson put it.

"What do you want to build a lighthouse out of: paper, jelly or stone? What do you want to build it on: rock, mud or water?" Choose water, and it sinks in front of your eyes. And there are "lots of downloadables": helmets, teepees, maps.

The LTS team was convinced, said Mr Robertson, that these games have a place in education. Teachers who need further convincing can go to the Land of Me website, get a trial account and see for themselves. The company is also looking for local authority partners to join them and find out how it can be used in education.

Gillian Macdonald




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