A recent survey by Tata Steel and British Triathlon found that, in the week before the poll was conducted, just 46 per cent of respondents had ridden their bikes and 34 per cent had swum the length of a pool, but 73 per cent had played a video game. This type of research often generates scaremongering headlines about children becoming zombie-like after spending hours in front of a screen.
But behind those headlines, children in schools across the country are using games consoles like the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360 not just as a way to relax at home, but also as a stimulus for their learning, creating an altogether more exciting and interactive experience.
When the "Staffordshire Hoard", the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silverwork ever found, was put on display at the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, Jenny Hulme, who was working for Stoke City Learning Centre (CLC), felt it was an ideal opportunity to try out games-based learning in the curriculum.
Year 6 pupils took their Sony PSP consoles, bought by Stoke CLC, to the museum and when they pointed the camera at the display, an audio-visual description was triggered, delivering a wealth of further information to the pupils.
"I work at the cutting edge of new technologies in schools and was tasked to devise a project using the PSPs," says Ms Hulme, who now works as an independent ICT consultant. "The children are immediately immersed in a rich, contextualised learning environment where they can take control of their own learning."
Computer games in school are nothing new. The BBC and the ACORN computers taught children key skills such as numeracy and logic through simple yet fun games like The Crystal Rainforest and Badger Trails. However, recent advances in games console technology, such as wireless controllers, motion-capturing cameras and high-speed internet connectivity, have allowed traditionally home-based consoles to migrate to the classroom. Teachers can now pull educational content from games such as Mario amp; Sonic at the Olympics and Guitar Hero and use the consoles as a hook to get their pupils engaged with the subject matter.
"Games engage children to learn," says Nicholas Hughes, ICT co-ordinator at Nightingale Primary in Redbridge, east London. Games have always had a place in the classroom as an educational tool, whether in the form of a chess board or a Meccano set. Games consoles in classrooms are merely an evolution of this concept. "It's not as radical as people think it is," stresses Mr Hughes.
"It's only when they are actually introduced to the idea of using it as a tool in the classroom that they fully understand, and then there's no stopping them," says Mark Sutton, assistant curriculum leader for design and technology at Soar Valley College in Leicester.
Mr Sutton has been developing a learning platform that uses a piece of software called Second Sight on the Sony PSP. It embeds media on to something called a semacode, a black and white squared pattern on a piece of paper. When the camera on the PSP is pointed at the semacode, it suddenly comes to life and projects a 3D image onto the screen. Year 10 students at Soar Valley have been learning about the solar system, looking at a 3D planet on the screen as well as an audio description, immersing them in augmented reality. The displays at the Potteries Museum use the same technology.
"Using this type of technology really does create a 'wow' reaction from the kids, which means straight away they are keyed right into whatever the lesson is about," says Mr Sutton.
Mr Sutton also uses the PSP to deliver verbal feedback by creating semacodes unique to each child. They can use this feedback to see where they need to improve on areas of their work, a much more personalised and interactive method than merely telling a child they scored three out of five for attainment.
"The real bonus comes when the students can listen to their feedback, on their own and in their own space," Mr Sutton explains.
In English lessons, pupils at Soar Valley are using the PSP to bring novels such as Sherlock Holmes stories to life, allowing them to follow clues and work together to solve the mystery. It is having positive effects in getting reluctant readers, especially boys, to grasp the subject, adds Mr Sutton.
Meanwhile, Dawn Hallybone, Senior Year 6 teacher at Oakdale Junior School in Redbridge, is a self-confessed gamer. Pupils at Oakdale have been using the Nintendo DS for the last three years, with 30 consoles being shared by the 350 children in the school. Each class is timetabled to use the console every day. Some days begin with her class of 10 and 11-year-olds using the popular Dr Kawashima's Brain Training to get their minds active and improve their mental arithmetic.
One project involved the popular Mario Kart game on the Nintendo Wii and was a cross-curricular and collaborative effort by staff and pupils. They designed a Formula 1 racing team, recorded race commentaries with the Wii's headset, designed posters and other advertising leaflets in DT and even sharpened their creative writing skills by using themes from the game to write fantasy stories. The project culminated in the children racing around the playground in go-karts.
At the recent Learning Without Frontiers conference, Mrs Hallybone gave a talk to around 700 delegates about games-based learning. She used a case study involving six children who had a combined total of 128 days' absence from school across two terms. The same children were then given consoles to use at home and in lessons. During the term that they used the consoles the pupils were never absent or late for school.
But will more developers recognise the power of creating games that can also be used as teaching tools? Ray Maguire, former head of Sony Europe, believes we are only a couple of years from seeing games-based learning implemented across the national curriculum. "With the right will and the right energy this can happen," he predicts.
In the meantime, the movement is growing among teachers, and social networking is helping to spread the word. In 2009 Mr Hughes and Mrs Hallybone set up the Redbridge Games Network, a collection of schools in London which are interested in using games in education.
So while the scaremongers would have us believe we are breeding a nation of screen addicts who spend more time on games consoles than sport, these schools are ensuring that screen times is learning time, too.
Games to use in class
- Wild Africa Safari (PC) and Endless Ocean 2 (Nintendo Wii) to develop work on science habitats.
- Myst 3 (PC and Mac) to improve and extend descriptive story writing.
- Guitar Hero (various consoles) used in maths to design, plan and calculate a rock band world tour.
- Just Dance (Xbox 360, Wii) used during "wet play" - great way to exercise the children and involve everybody.
Useful online resources