General purpose computers give kids wide walls

Rainbow light

I really like this article by Mark Wilson at Fast Co.Design, railing against how dumb supposedly ‘educational’ toys actually are. It reminds me of the situation that I’ve seen with my own kids where they’re more interested in the box that the educational toy was shipped in than the contents received as a Christmas present from a well-meaning relative.

The author goes on to cite Pokemon Go which not only has ‘invisible lessons’ (saving up points, investing in the right power-ups) but actually gets kids out and about. In fact, video games are a great way to prepare kids for the adult world. And yes, I speak from experience… 

Research has found that video games can spur problem solving, interest in history, social skills, and even exercise (when kids tried to mock the moves they saw virtual athletes make.) Almost every off-the-shelf dummy video game you play requires a basic version of the scientific method to complete. Here you are, on Super Mario Bros. level one. The first time you play, you run right into the goomba mushroom and die. The second time, you hypothesize how to avoid death. “Maybe I can jump over him. Maybe I can jump on him!” You test. And correct theories are rewarded with progress in the game. So what if you’re not publishing a grand conclusion. Your conclusion is burning Bowser alive and partying with the princess at the last castle. Meanwhile, all those coding apps that are all the rage? They aren’t proven to work. And they teach such baseline principles that there’s not much gained. Meanwhile, handing a kid who is curious about coding real resources—maybe a plan, an Arduino, and some LEDs—could do the job better. And it would give them the opportunity to build something real they might actually want to play with when the lesson is done.

I’m not a big fan of silos. The best preparation for adult life is diversity and learning how to do things in unexpected new ways. Educational toys prescribe the outcome, set limits on what’s possible, and aren’t even very ‘fun’. 

Bottom line: Life is short. Let’s not spend it with stupid educational toys and apps that won’t teach our kids much of anything they couldn’t learn somewhere else, while probably having more fun playing in the process.

We’re far too keen to take the shortcut to what we think would be a good outcome for our little darlings. What they need is a broad education, one which has (what Mitch Resnick would call) ‘wide walls’. Instead, we constrain what’s possible, effectively conspiring with governments and large organisations to create what Cory Doctorow calls the war on general purpose computing.

Image via Nomad Pictures