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Playing in the Sandbox

One of the most popular games finding its way into classrooms now isn’t much of a game at all.

One of the most popular games finding its way into classrooms now isn’t much of a game at all. Released originally in 2009, Minecraft is a “sandbox” 3D video game built in a Lego-like environment that allows “players” the creative freedom to build anything, from towering castles set high on ocean cliffs to complex roller coasters.

Players mine in the ground for resources that they can use to create torches (to keep “creepers“ away) and tools. Depending on whose server they play on, all of it can become collaborative space for creating virtual communities complete with roles, economies and negotiated rules.

Teacher Kathleen Gerard at PS 116 in New York City is integrating Minecraft into her regular classes after having an after-school group of third- through fifth-graders playing the last two years. She says the learning her students receive borders on amazing. “My students are almost frighteningly enthusiastic about Minecraft, so they do a lot of game-specific learning on their own by watching Minecraft screencasts and reading Minecraft blogs and wikis,” she says. “They’ve made books about Minecraft; they’ve figured out farming and smelting, portal creation and enchanting (which adds special abilities to various tools and objects), and some pretty amazing problem solving in terms of how to make new things in their virtual worlds.” And students have developed a community with laws and etiquette, requiring diplomacy and negotiation. Gerard says students may now discuss, for example, “why it’s OK to take whatever we want from the environment in Minecraft, but why that may not be” good in real life.

While Minecraft wasn’t created specifically for education, there’s been enough interest from teachers to develop a version of the game specific for classrooms. Joel Levin at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City says he was so impressed by how engaged his first- and second-grade students were that he decided to work with a network of other Minecraft teachers to develop MinecraftEDU. The appeal for Levin has been the flexibility of the learning environment. “I always kind of felt I would have to shoehorn my lessons to fit the game, but Minecraft was the first one where I could change the game to fit my lessons,” Levin said recently on Ed Tech Talk radio. “It’s such a great way to introduce the concepts of citizenship and digital safety at an early age.”

And older students use Minecraft to build replicas of cities or simulations of historic events—from ancient Rome to World War II. English teachers have students collaborate to work out what characters’ homes might look and feel like, according to literature they read. Mary Ann Reilly, an independent consultant, studied one such implementation in a public middle school as students recreated Hillsboro, Tenn., from the novel Inherit the Wind. Each student then took on a role from the book and acted it out via a Minecraft avatar. “This was a community of learners trying to build something together, and negotiating different visions for their scenes,” Reilly said. “They were constructing what they were learning about the reading, coming to understand the text more fully because they were building the scenes together. There are no rubrics for that.”