The kids are playing with Nintendo Labo, an ingenious game that comes with a box of fold-up cardboard models that turn from inert facsimiles into working toys, with the addition of a Nintendo Switch console. Snap two controllers on to a cardboard car ...
At the end of the summer term at Southgate primary school in Crawley, West Sussex, a class of 10-year-olds are folding together cardboard models of remote-controlled cars and decorating them with pipe cleaners, pens, googly eyes and tape, with the aim of using them to transport a biscuit across a table and into the open mouths of their teachers.
The kids are playing with Nintendo Labo, an ingenious game that comes with a box of fold-up cardboard models that turn from inert facsimiles into working toys, with the addition of a Nintendo Switch console. Snap two controllers on to a cardboard car and it judders across the table. A cardboard piano becomes a working keyboard with a screen. A cardboard fishing rod can be used to play a fishing game, attached by string to a base housing the console. They are fun to play with, but they also teach engineering principles – the software includes a child-friendly but comprehensive breakdown of how the console uses features such as vibration, infrared cameras and gyroscopes to make the models work.
The teacher, Chris McGivern, is a lifelong fan of video games and sees plenty of good reasons to bring them into the classroom wherever possible. Incorporating children’s interests helps them learn, he says. And many teachers in their 30s are likely to have grown up with video games. “They are incredibly enthusiastic about it and I love the relationship and rapport it helps build with the children – that’s the bedrock of education,” McGivern says. “Without trust and relationships between children, parents and teachers, you can’t achieve long-term attention and application. As a player, I love video games for the escapism and imagination they offer. And as a teacher, I feel empowered to use them for learning.”
But integrating games into lessons regularly is difficult, because no school has 25 PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch consoles at the ready. School computers, meanwhile, may just about manage to run something like Minecraft: Education Edition – which has applications in geography, history, engineering and physics, among other activities – but they are often too old to run new games. Nintendo has provided the consoles and Labo kits for McGivern’s year 6 class, and a few others across the country. Ubisoft has also been making efforts this year to bring Assassin’s Creed: Discovery Tour, an interactive museum of ancient Egypt , into schools. But generally, video games are something that children have at home and that parents and teachers may struggle to understand.
Like many schools, Southgate primary makes an effort to communicate with parents about games. “Whenever there’s a big craze, we find out more about it so we can educate parents,” says Sharon Bondonno, deputy headteacher at Southgate. “We run a Twitter feed, send letters home and hold e-safety workshops for parents to let them know what’s safe and age-appropriate, and what’s not.” But having games in the classroom can help parents understand them as something to be shared rather than feared, she adds.
“When parents know that Nintendo, for example, is being used in schools, that can help steer them towards the more family-friendly games that they can get involved with,” Bondonno says. “Parents can see the interaction with teachers and want to do that at home as well. That is key: getting parents to understand what children are doing, rather than it being in a room on their own.”
McGivern, who is in his 16th year of teaching, believes playing games himself helps him relate to the role they play in his students’ lives. “I understand their language when they talk about these games, especially inappropriate ones, so I can reason with them about how we should and shouldn’t play,” he says. “I try and have a keen ear to hear what they are interested in, to tap into their interests in a positive way and help them make good choices when they are not in the classroom.”
A recent Childcare.co.uk survey found that more than half of British parents let their children play 18-rated video games, such as Grand Theft Auto Online and Call of Duty, without supervision. Although few parents stick religiously to age ratings – a 12-rated game such as the current craze Fortnite is reasonably played by plenty of 10- or 11-year-olds – the gulf between children and their parents in understanding what modern video games involve can cause issues, says McGivern.
“With children who play on an Xbox or PlayStation, when it comes to age-appropriate games you hear them talking about Fifa or Minecraft, but other than that that it’s Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty: Zombies … graphic stuff,” he says. As Southgate primary’s “technology for learning” leader, he frequently gives advice about parental and wifi controls and game content to help parents keep them a positive presence in family life.
“If you are a working mum and you haven’t got a lot of time, it can be hard to keep on top of what they play,” says June, a parent who is present with one of her three children, George. “My kids have my old consoles, as well as their own computers, but they don’t play shooters … All three of them get something different from [games]. My eldest is obsessed with Kerbal Space Program, he wants to be part of the space agency.
“As a mum, you don’t want them staring at a screen in a zombie state, which so much technology does now. You want them to be involved. Having [games] at school does show you there’s more to it than shoot ’em ups.”
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