Jasper the girl dog is more than a pampered pooch
When Anna Rossvoll watched her eight-year-old daughter Allie feeding her virtual puppy on a handheld games console, she spotted the educational potential.
The Aberdeenshire deputy headteacher is on secondment to the local authority as an ICT project officer: "I just knew, when I saw my daughter playing with it, that we would be able to deliver a quality learning experience through this context," Mrs Rossvoll explains.
She took the idea to Derek Robertson at Learning and Teaching Scotland's Consolarium, which is developing the use of games-based learning in Scottish schools. He was excited about the game's possibilities and organised a pilot in two Aberdeenshire primary schools.
"It's like a Tamagotchi on steroids," says Mr Robertson enthusiastically. "A good teacher can use this to drive writing and reading activities, art and design - all manner of cross-curricular work and a set of rich learning tasks."
Nintendogs was road-tested by P2 pupils at Elrick and Banchory primary schools earlier this year and, since then, news about puppy power has been spreading. More than 10 north-east schools now have the Nintendo DS consoles to use with the game, and authorities across Scotland have been contacting Aberdeenshire to learn more about the project.
Nintendogs involves children training their virtual pets to win competitions, and feeding and caring for them. The Aberdeenshire pupils then used the game as a springboard to learning. They wrote blogs about their dogs, went out walking with real dogs, learned about puppy care from a vet and had visits from the dog warden.
"This is something children have ownership over and something that has cultural relevance for them. I think that's one of the reasons we've had the success we've had and why people are so interested," says Derek Robertson.
Two of the boys who tested Nintendogs described how it works. "You have to feed them the same as normal dogs, but you use a stylus to do it. My dog was Jasper - it was actually a girl dog," says seven-year-old Jack Pennie, in P3 at Elrick Primary.
"It's fun," says his friend Reece Taylor, also 7. "You get to do competitions and you get to clap them. But if you don't look after it and feed it, then it would start to dry up and just lie in the house for ages and won't play."
There's a buzz in the classroom when children work on games-based learning and teachers like Michelle Law, who ran the Elrick pilot, find the enthusiasm infectious and the impact on attainment impressive. "We got one console between three children, so instantly they had to work in a group - this was team work from the very beginning," she says.
"There were 10 children, out of 29, who had Nintendogs at home. So I decided - because I didn't have any knowledge of the game - that they would be the Top Dogs and would peer-tutor the other children. I learned alongside them.
"The dog has to do agility tests, catching different things, and the more successful their dog is in competitions, the more money they raise and the more things they can buy for the dog," she explains.
The pampered pooches have an exotic array of accessories - from firemen's hats and collars to bubble blowers and bowls. To their teacher's astonishment, the P2s were soon managing budgets of up to Pounds 600 - when their usual numeracy range at this age would be around the one to 20 level.
News of the project's success has travelled and Stephen Heppell, a leading consultant on ICT in learning, has invited Mrs Law, with Jack and Reece, to demonstrate Nintendogs next month at a conference in London, to showcase the best examples of digital creativity in education.
Anna Rossvoll is delighted at the range of skills the game has encouraged: "We are developing a Nintendogs Glow group and it will have the planning grids and resources we have used, links to websites and a bank of images staff can use. That's the beauty of Glow - it's all there and it will be ready for the Scottish Learning Festival."