Gaming Environments That Allow Kids To Lead Their Own Learning And Build Confidence

Liam O’Donnell runs GamingEdus  – a secure server where kids (and their parents!) can explore virtual worlds. We interviewed him about the benefits for many students on and off the autism spectrum and how the game Minecraft allows them to be creative, lead their own learning, and build confidence:

What is Minecraft?

Minecraft is open-ended “sandbox” game that allows players to build just about anything they like with a variety of blocks. It’s been described as a digital Lego and that’s about right. Don’t be fooled by its simple, blocky, graphics. It’s a very intricate game because, unlike other games, everything you see in Minecraft, you can interact with. From the trees in front of you to the dirt on the ground, everything can be broken apart and then re-structured, or crafted into something else. And that’s where the intricacies (and much of the magic) of the game lie. Whatever your interests­ – gardening, raising animals or building electrical circuits, there is a way into Minecraft for you. I think that’s been a part of its phenomenal success.

Unlike other games, in Minecraft there are no quests or missions. There’s no tutorial level telling you where to go or what to do next. For many veteran gamers, this seems a bit weird at first. However, for the kids I’ve seen play, it gives them a sense of freedom and permission to be creative in the most amazing ways.

Tell us about the no-bullying and other security policies.

The GamingEdus servers are run by elementary school teachers, many with their own children playing on the server, so we have several ways to prevent online bullying and ensure ours is a safe space for all players.

First, access to the server is controlled through a white list of approved players. Before anyone can access the server, they must fill out a white list request form on our website. These requests are read by us and if the person seems like a good fit, we add them to the whitelist and they can access the server. The white list stops random people popping onto the server, causing chaos and leaving. So far, it’s worked very well.

Second, we’re a small server, but growing and always open to new players. The adults are all teachers, people who homeschool or are connected to education in some way. The kids are all their own children or nieces, nephews, etc. So, there is a connection between players, where I can contact a parent if I need to speak to them about something their child has done in game.

Additionally, all text chat and block placements or breakages are recorded by the server. I can go back and look at logs to see who said what or who broke who’s building. Thankfully, I very rarely have to do that. The first two elements keep us all focused on having positive fun.

It’s not possible for myself or the other adults to be on the server at all times, so we advise that parents be around when their child is in game and aware of what they are up to. In fact, many parents play with their kids on the server. That is the best way to experience the game and our server.

GamingEdus has become an amazing mix-aged play space that I think is all too rare these days.

When I met your amazing wife, she mentioned that you have many kids from all over the autism spectrum using Minecraft and loving it.

The fact that so many of our players (both young and old) have autism has been such an amazing development for the GamingEdus server. The game itself deserves all the credit for engaging children on the spectrum. However, I think the welcoming nature of all our players is why several parents have contacted me to say how happy they were that their autistic child has a safe, positive online space to play and interact with others. We didn’t set out to create a server for children with autism. It just happened and we couldn’t be happier.

Melanie McBride, one of our founding players, has been inspirational in ensuring young players with autism are encouraged to play however they wish. With that in mind, she created a separate area in our world that is exclusively just for autistic players. They have a space to play however they want, without feeling pressured to do what other non-autistic players are doing. I think having an alternative space like this helps many players feel like they can be who they want and play the way they want on our server. And I am all about supporting that.

Brilliant. I love that it encourages people to indulge in their interests and cultivate strengths. That’s the whole reason we built Squag! Can you comment on how this allows kids to build confidence?

When I use Minecraft with my students, many of whom are in special education classes or on the spectrum, I let them lead the learning. I try not to have a set task or goal for them to accomplish. It’s up to them to discover where the game and the learning will take them, through their own play.

Very quickly, kids will stumble on something they want to learn about. This can be how to craft an item in game, where to find a certain monster or even what happens when lava and water mix in the game. These are the “burning questions” that propel the students forward in their learning. As a teacher, I stand aside and facilitate their learning by directing them to resources or challenging their thinking or assumptions. This model of student-led, inquiry-based learning is fantastic for building student confidence.

I take the same approach with running the GamingEdus server, which kids play on outside of their school day. Inevitably, they have a question about the game or something they want to learn how to do. They usually don’t even ask me how to do it. When they do, I just point them in the direction of some resources.

When motivated intrinsically, kids will go to great lengths to learn.

I also should mention, that many times it’s the kids teaching me how to do things in game. Virtual worlds are a great opportunity to level the playing field when it comes to learning.

Tell us about the “elder” accounts and how they interact (or don’t interact!) with the “younger” accounts.

GamingEdus is a mix-aged server, which means we have adults and children playing in the same virtual world. For the reasons explained above, it’s still a safe space because myself and my admins know who everyone is in the real world.

However, it’s still good to know if you’re playing with or talking to an adult or a child when in game. Every player gets a tag which appears next to their player name in game based on their age. Adults are tagged “the Elder” and kids are tagged “the Younger”. For example, my player name is Praxismaxis.  In game I appear as “Praxismaxis the Elder”.

Adults and kids play together in activities like our Player vs Player (PvP) battle arenas (where the kids always beat the adults!) or work together to survive in our Survival World. Sometimes, the kids will play together without adults like when they’re having Pokemon battles or exploring new areas of the world.

Play is very fluid on the server and often the age of the player is not something that is really thought about. It’s a big change from play in the real world.

Love that. No assumptions are made and each interaction begins with respect. Who is using your server?

We run two servers: The Multi-School Minecraft server and the GamingEdus Professional Play server.

The Multi-School Minecraft server is a single virtual world shared by four schools and over 50 students. We use that server with our students in school during the school day.

The GamingEdus Professional Play server was originally built for teachers to play the game outside of school, so they could learn the game and connect with other gaming educators. Teachers signed up and brought their own children, so now it’s an amazing mix of ages and people. We’re a small but growing server with players from Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia.

We’re always looking for new players and are open to people working in education, or home schooling their kids. We also welcome people looking for a safe place for their kids to play, but ask that adults play on the server too. Playing Minecraft is a great way for parents and kids to connect and play together and our server is an ideal place for that to happen. Anyone who is interested can visit and fill out a White List Request form.

How are you affiliated with EDGElabs?

I am fortunate enough to be an External Collaborator with the EDGE Lab at Ryerson. My partner, Melanie McBride is a researcher at the lab and is studying with the lab’s founder Dr. Jason Nolan.

Jason has been working with children, digital spaces and learning since the early days of the Internet. He’s been instrumental in making the GamingEdus Project a reality, by providing server space, bandwidth and technical support. He also plays on the server and creates some the most amazing builds in our world!


These blog posts might be helpful to readers:

Getting Started in Minecraft

Five Ways Minecraft Can Boost Student Writing Skills