Gina Warner: I confess. I couldn’t have survived our snow days if my daughter hadn’t had Minecraft! What is it about it that kids love so much?
Pam Simon: Oh, I know! Minecraft is a win-win game. It’s a “sandbox” game. Imagine yourself on a beach with miles of sand in front of you. You have your tools—your bucket, shovel, water, and imagination! That’s what kids love about Minecraft. They’re given continuously generating worlds, which change from day to night and change weather cycles, and they have many tools and resources. They can set whatever pace, be as social, and spend as much time as they want on a project. There seems to be something in it for everyone. Future architects and engineers love building structures. Future electricians and mechanics love to work with the wiring system in the game. Future geologists mine. Future archeologists love discovering new villages. Even farming and ranching are involved. Kids can decide if they want to play in “survival mode” (gathering and using precious resources) or “creative mode” (with survival needs met). At Fidgets2Widgets, we love Minecraft because it’s highly creative, empowering, social, and engaging. We’re a MinecraftEdu Center, where we use it as a learning platform. We’ve also created a cultural value system for the game—not being destructive of other people’s creations, no bullying, no name calling, no yelling—so kids are learning social emotional skills.
GW: I love how you and (co-founder) Sydney Ashland are taking the virtual world to the physical world. How is your program designed to bring together the best of those experiences?
PS: If we continue with the Minecraft thread, there are many characters in the game, with certain personalities and roles. Kids love to interact with them on the computer, but are thrilled to continue the saga offline. We’ll take a break from screen time and divide kids up into Minecraft characters—“Steve,” a Villager, a Creeper, and so on. They come up with a storyline and run around playing out the scene! I don’t think for them there’s much separation between the virtual and physical worlds, because it all lives in the world of their imagination. We used to play “house.” They’re playing Minecraft and calling it Role Playing Games, or RPGs. Same thing, different generation.
GW: People complain technology doesn't build soft skills—or success skills, as we like to call them. What do you think?
PS: Digital Citizenship is a Fidgets2Widgets core value. If someone does something that results in another person feeling hurt or angry, we stop everything we’re doing to work it out. We talk through what happened, have apologies and forgiveness, and do what’s needed to make it right. Since our Widgetarians (Fidgets2Widgets kids) aren’t operating in isolation, a lot of relationship skill building goes on. We talk about not saying things online that you wouldn’t say face to face. Our kids are constantly negotiating, compromising, communicating expectations. I’m amazed by the social-relational skills they’re building. As far as skills for success, they’re constantly typing, reading, mentoring, meeting deadlines, completing assignments, and following through on projects. Our Widgetarians are going to be ready for hire in no time!
GW: Why is afterschool so great for integrating technology and learning?
PS: Great question! Afterschool is the perfect intersection for technology and learning. It’s what kids want to do with their time! They’re on YouTube, Reddit, social media; they’re playing games on their phones. The Internet is their playground. We wanted to provide a socially safe, structured, supervised, stimulating place for them to do their thing. We guide this generation in becoming active creators of technology, rather than passive users and consumers of it. They’ll soon be inheriting the digital world, and society needs them readied for it.
GW: What advice would you give to a program director who’s looking to integrate more technology into a program?
PS: Don’t be daunted by technology, or the cost. I’ve had a steep learning curve as a fifty-year-old woman with a social work background. Kids are infinitely patient and thrilled when you show an interest in their tech skills. Let them teach you! It can also be simple. Fidgets2Widgets has one iPad, but we can mirror it onto a big screen TV. I’ve downloaded fun apps—Words With Friends (Scrabble), Free Flow, and others that we play as a group. There are tons of free resources on the Internet. We use several, such as Code.org and Cruchzilla, to teach coding. Our ultimate goal is to make the afterschool experience fun—and stimulating!
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