It is 2015, and as a family we have resisted jumping onto the Minecraft bandwagon for a very long time. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm only grows. How do homeschool children know so much about a game they have never played? I am often approached with varying propositions – “If I use my own money, can I buy the Pocket edition on Grandma’s tablet? That way I’ll only play it at her house.”
It’s not like we’re against videos games in our family. We do try to limit media to 30 minutes a day on school days (I admit we’re not always successful). My real aversion to Minecraft started a couple years ago when I saw a picture on Facebook of one of my very good friends posted by his wife. The caption was “Minecraft Thanksgiving” and the picture showed my friend and three of his kids, each on a different laptop staring intently at the screen. As a homeschool family, time-management and discipline is crucial, so the last thing we need is a wildly addictive game sucking up all of our time and attention.
My son turned 10 in September and I finally gave in. I laid out some important ground rules for the kids: 1) Each of the 3 older kids gets 30 minutes per day to play and must set a timer during their turn. 2) All school work must be done by 3:30 of that day to earn the Minecraft turn. 3) When it’s not your turn, no staring at the screen while someone else plays. 4) No playing multiplayer for now. I figured these rules could at least provide some extra motivation to work harder on school work even if the video game time ends up being a waste.
How did the experience turn out? I have to admit, I have been really pleased with many unexpected benefits. Minecraft is an amazing tool to indirectly teach some fundamental engineering skills.
1) It Exercises Decision-Making Skills
The kids begged me to play with them, and I began a game in Survival Mode. There is also a Creative Mode with unlimited resources and with many of the practical challenges removed (no need to worry about hunger, monsters, getting hurt), but I’ll get to that later. In Survival Mode, I was immediately struck with how much the game mirrors the challenges of real-life. Resources need to be collected and budgetted effectively. This requires patience and careful decision making. Once I build a shelter, do I gather food or gather what I need to make better tools? There are crops to plant, animals to raise, mining trips to gather coal, rocks, and important ores. The number of challenges is endless, and it pushes players to get more creative coming up with ways to automate important tasks.
2) The Creative Potential is Boundless
My kids are really very creative and artistic. I have not been too surprised that my oldest has stuck with Creative Mode, but what the kids have created has been way beyond my expectations. It started with her building some elaborate houses while my boys were spending their turns in Survival Mode. But as her creations have progressed, the boys caught the bug and have moved over to 100% Creative Mode too and I am surprised to see some pretty advanced stuff that her younger brothers are creating. Every time I walk by the computer I see worlds full of giant sculptures of their favorite TV and movie characters, elaborate roller coasters that shoot along mountain-sides and deep into caves, and cities full of amazing replicas of popular chain restaurants. Just imagine unlimited Legos where you never have to hunt for peices and there is no mess to clean up.
If you look around online, you will be amazed by the level of creations out there – recreations of entire cities, architectural marvels constructed with amazing detail, you may even find local attractions recreated in Minecraft blocks. One day I searched Youtube for ‘Minecraft Texas Giant’ just to see if someone had taken the time to reconstruct one of my favorite nearby roller coasters, and sure enough someone had taken a stab at it.
3) Redstone Circuits and Mods
One of the coolest aspects of the game is the machine and circuit components available in the world of Minecraft. There are many books and websites completely dedicated to the art of redstone machines, and while the physics are not really accurate to real-world circuits, many of the principles are the same. I read an interview with the creator of Minecraft, and he said he was blown away the first time a user created a computer out of redstone components within the game. It is really unbelievable what people have been able to create from redstone. For a quick guide to get started in redstone, this Wiki page is an excellent starting point.
In addition to redstone, Minecraft allows users to make changes to the way the game looks and behaves. This is advanced stuff, so we haven’t travelled this path yet. I do not let our kids download mods from other users (there is always significant risk using software from unknown sources). The idea of making their own mods is one of the carrots I use to motivate our kids to learn coding. This gives them an end-goal they are excited about when I make them go through computer programming exercises that they are not completely excited about.
4) Users Teaching Users
I know we live in an age where people are eager to share tutorials and you can learn to do almost anything on Youtube. But the Minecraft community really takes this to a whole new level. If you want to build almost anything in Minecraft, there is probably a good instructional video out there. If not, kids will be eager to create and share their creations with the world. These exercises of seeking out information and then creating useful instructions are huge skills that will benefit them later.
Overall, we have been very happy with the results of the Minecraft Experiment. It has the kids motivated to get their school done early every day and they are gleaning benefits we didn’t expect. However, I highly recommend laying down ground rules that work for your family. To speed up the learning process, we found the the different Minecraft Handbooks very helpful. We found these used at a local bookstore for a good deal, but we did find that the kids read these cover to cover.
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