Radical Unschooling Rules

Radical unschooling isn’t a set of rules to follow. It’s what happens when you rethink rules and start living by principles, when you stop forcing arbitrary restrictions and limits on kids and start living with mindfulness and consideration, when you stop being coercive and controlling and start being kind and thoughtful, when you stop thinking it’s all about the parents winning or the kids winning and start working together in partnership where everyone’s needs and feelings are of equal value.

Gaming Helps Bullied Kid

Bullying is never, never, never okay.

But neither is it black and white. It is not a simple case of “bullies are bad, victims are good”. Bullies are usually people who are hurting badly, themselves, and looking for an easy target as an outlet for their own pain. I think the saying “Hurting people hurt people” is an insightful observation. I don’t want to bully bullies, because that would be ridiculous! Yes, they need boundaries, but they also need love and understanding.

I truly believe that putting 98% of society’s children in mass childcare for twelve to fifteen years, with 2% of society’s adults in control, is a recipe for disaster, but that’s not the purpose of this post.

I simply wanted to point out that in the above video about bullying, the boy talks about how gaming helps him to process and cope with some of the impacts of the bullying. I thought it was interesting to hear it straight from his mouth, because it helps to debunk the myth that gaming increases violence. In case you couldn’t be bothered watching the video clip, here is the relevant bit:

Gaming actually helps me a lot,
to calm down and get out of the troubling parts of my life,
and to clear my mind of things that happened.
It’s like you go into a different universe….
I wish to fly without anything to hold me up…..
I like Harry Potter and I wish I could do magic! 
I’d zip everybody’s lips, all the rude people’s lips.

Video gaming can help people to handle stress better, reduce their hostile feelings and reduce the likelihood of depression, which I imagine would be a factor for the boy in the above video. There are many other benefits, too.

It’s time to radically rethink our assumptions about things like gaming!

Radical Unschooling and Food

I was thinking, tonight, while preparing green quiche and salad for dinner, about how the principles of unschooling actually apply to food, in the simplest of terms. I mean, I get that they do, and it’s how we live, but I think many people don’t necessarily understand why food gets included in the radical unschooling checklist. Radical unschoolers often say, “Oh, we don’t put restrictions on food”, or “They can eat what and when they like” and sometimes I wonder if people are making those choices simply because they have heard that radical unschooling means extending the philosophy into all areas of life, which means “no limits on food, bedtimes, media etc”, so if they do those things, they will be “qualified” to use the term. I’ve been wondering how many people have paused to consider *why* radical unschooling means not arbitrarily limiting food.

Then there are others who are trying to embrace radical unschooling but really struggle with “letting go of limits on food”. They often  say, “But I just can’t let go of my beliefs about food!” or “Surely you wouldn’t just let your kids eat whatever they want! All they would eat is lollies and chips and chocolate!”

Many people seem to think that they will be automatically considered a “radical unschooler” if they jump through certain hoops and tick all the necessary boxes (There are others who like to use the name and NOT jump through the hoops, but we’ll save that for another day!). This is the typical checklist that many people believe will qualify them as bearer of the grand title: radical unschooler.

  • No curriculum
  • No limits on food
  • No limits on media
  • No forced bedtimes
  • No forced chores

Do all those things and hey presto! You’re a radical unschooling parent!!

But I think it is much more than this. It isn’t just about doing the things a radical unschooler does. It requires thought, contemplation and mindfulness. It requires some mental shifts, and possibly some discomfort as we unpack our baggage, conduct critical analysis and undertake courageous self-examination as to why we tend to want to control certain areas of our children’s lives, why we find some areas harder to let go of than others, and whether we can still be considered a radical unschooler if we, for instance, still make our kids eat their broccoli! Radical unschooling involves re-thinking the status quo, and delving deep within ourselves to find that place where we truly can trust our children’s natural learning process in every area of life.

My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.
My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.

I think it also really helps to contemplate *why* the things on that list up there are actually on the list! Why is it that radical unschooling involves removing arbitrary limits from things like food?

So I spent some time thinking it through and this is what I came up with.  I think, like with unschooling academics, it is a multi pronged approach:

* With unschooling, we honour what our children love and we support their passions. We don’t elevate one activity as being more “educational” than another. Even if it is something we don’t personally value, we still respect the fact that they see very real value in it. We hold fast to the truth that they are learning all the time, whether they are choosing to watch a television program, or read a book, or draw in the dirt, or research medical eugenics.

So also, with food, we honour our children’s freedom of choice regarding food. We provide the foods they love. We say yes to them when we are out somewhere and they ask for a particular food. We trust in their ability to learn which foods feel good in their body and which foods don’t. We trust in their ability to know when they are hungry, to know what foods they do and don’t like, and to know when they are full.

* With unschooling, we provide an enriching, interesting environment with a wide variety of resources and opportunities for the nourishment of their minds. The resources and opportunities are always available for them to choose to use, or not.

So also, with food….. If we restrict their exposure to only ever include “all natural, all organic”, or we restrict their access to foods they want to try, or we rarely ever provide fresh, foods, relying instead on a diet of processed food, it’s a bit like how unschooling might look if we only provided TV, or only provided outside play, or only let them read books. That really wouldn’t be a great unschooling environment, and their opportunities for learning, and discovering/enjoying what they love, would be seriously limited. And when they do one day discover the big wide world of “other foods”, they may potentially gorge themselves to the point of being ill, or develop an unhealthy obsession with “junk food” or find it very difficult to have a pure, unadulterated relationship to food. So instead, we stock our kitchen with nourishing, tasty, fun and interesting foods. We provide a wide variety of foods to nourish their bodies. We prepare “monkey platters“. We cook and prepare foods that our family will enjoy eating, and make all sorts of foods easily accessible and attractive to look at, readily available for anyone to choose to eat them. Or not.

* With unschooling, we strew new and interesting opportunities and resources before our children, for them to explore. Or not.

With food, we experiment with new cuisines and recipes, explore new tastes, take them to interesting eating places, buy the weird fruit….. We stimulate the senses with interesting new smells and tastes and colours and textures. We visit the local farmer’s market, talk to the growers, try the samples, laugh together at the funny dog who balances an orange on his nose, throws it up in the air and catches it (click the link and scroll to the bottom of that post for an awesome photo of one very cool dog)…..

* With unschooling, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation.

With food, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation! And for many of us, when it comes to food, we have to do a lot of that self-examination I talked about above to enable us to provide information without it becoming a mini-lecture, or, even worse, a long lecture! In the early days of radical unschooling, it can be quite difficult to do this without the child feeling pressure and manipulation, even if we think we aren’t pressuring or manipulating them! In an attempt to “teach their children about nutrition”, many parents cause their children’s eyes to glaze over, and their minds to wander, and their heels to dig in.

* With unschooling, we are not only interested in what they’re doing, we are interesting people ourselves! We pursue our own interests.

With food, we follow our own bliss, eating what we love, and learning about nutrition if that’s what we want to do. We eat mindfully and authentically. We don’t do this to try to subtly convince them that they should do the same, but because we are living an authentic life, and eating the foods that we want to eat. When a child is in an environment of trust and respect, without pressure to eat a certain way, they are far more likely to be positively influenced by the way we are living and the choices we are making. If that is a scary thought, and you really wish they wouldn’t copy your eating patterns, then reconsider the choices you are making, rather than getting stressed about the choices your child is making!

So there you have it! When we apply the principles of unschooling to the way we interact with food, we are moving towards what is often termed radical unschooling, or whole life unschooling. And trust me, it’s an AWESOME way to live!

A Gamer Self-Limits

My 13yo son is passionate (and I mean VERY passionate) about computers. Initially we thought he would follow a path towards the practical side, building his own computer, etc, and so we got a couple of old broken computers off Freecycle for him to pull apart and play with. He enjoyed doing that, and learned a lot, but a little while later when I suggested getting some work experience at a computer repair shop, he said that the experience with the old computers had helped him come to a place of clarity in terms of what he did and didn’t like doing. He realised that he isn’t really interested in the hardware side of computers, fixing them etc.

He is more interested in using them, creating computer graphics, gaming, making videos for Youtube, creating a website and Facebook page, researching, following incredibly interesting Youtube channels such as Vsauce, ChampChong and Mythbusters. (He recently got to have a chat and a photo with ChampChong at the EB Games Expo. I was so amazed at his decorum and confidence when stumbling upon one of his Youtube heroes. He didn’t go all ga-ga like I would have if I’d known who he was, but he also didn’t shy away. He was full of absolute confidence when walking up to him for a chat, to the point that I thought he was talking to someone he already knew!)

To support him in this interest, we managed to scrape together some funds to purchase an entry level gaming computer, headset etc, which he is making VERY good use of, let me tell you! He really enjoyed the process of researching different suppliers, different brands and infrastructure (probably not the right word) and then selecting the components he wanted and kind of building it virtually in a way.

gamer_self_limits_unshackledThen for his birthday this year, we got him a USB recording microphone. And a ukelele, just for something randomly different (his request).


He spends a major part of his life sitting at that computer, which brings me much joy. Truly! I know he is doing what he loves, pursuing his interest, and learning ever so much along the way. And he has also made some new friends and even met some face to face (I hesitate to say “in real life” because his life and their relationship is just as real whether it is via a computer or face to face).


(P.S. They didn't "just do gaming" when they met face to face, either. It's amazing how long they attempted to throw those tennis balls through that little tiny hole, and how much fun they had doing it!)
(P.S. They didn’t “just do gaming” when they met face to face, either. It’s amazing how long they attempted to throw those tennis balls through that little tiny hole, and how much fun they had doing it!)

I am more interested in supporting him in his passions, than I am in trying to somehow construct my own version of “balance” for him. We have talked occasionally about eye strain, and ways to combat it (he wants a pair of computer gaming glasses to help reduce strain when looking at computers etc. I think I want a pair too! Don’t tell him, but whenever I get the chance, I “borrow” them!). We also talk about needing to get up and move about every so often. It isn’t a demand or a forced thing, but rather a natural conversation, and the giving and receiving of information.

Just now, he surprised me (and hence the impetus for this post) by announcing that he’s set up a system for himself whereby while he is gaming he listens to a music playlist by Monstercat that goes for about an hour. When the playlist finishes, he stops what he’s doing on the computer (unless he’s in the middle of something that can’t easily be paused) and gets up to do something different for awhile, stretch his legs and so on.

I am quite confident that if I had instigated and insisted upon such a thing, and was trying to enforce it, his involvement in the process might be unhappy compliance, but with the idea being his own initiative, there is nothing for him to resent, or resist. He is learning to listen to his body, to find a solution that is fun and helpful, and he hasn’t had to endure any coercion (however subtle) from me at all.

I am actually feeling inspired by his decision, and think I might just go and stretch my own legs now. Bye! 🙂

Do “Violent” Games Make People Violent?

I am a pacifist, yet my children have all played with toy guns, swords, and now “violent video games”.

Yes, the two things can go together! My children are not me! They have their own interests and values, and I have mine, and that is okay. In fact, it’s awesome! Not always easy, but definitely good. I did not give birth to clones of the wonderful me. I gave birth to children who are unique individuals, with their own ideas and preferences.

I still don’t love the sounds of (fake) war when they play “violent” video games, but I focus on delighting in their enjoyment, interest and passion. And for what it’s worth, they don’t go around doing any of it in real life.

What My Kids Think

My children all say the same thing: It’s just a game!

I recently had a great chat to one of my boys (aged 16) whilst sitting on his bed watching him play what most people would call a”violent” game. He was relaxed, leaning back on a soft comfortable lounge, chatting casually with me whilst simultaneously pressing buttons that caused pixellated digitalised “people” to be artificially obliterated before our eyes. I was wondering what he thought of the fears some people have about first-person shooter games and how they can tend to blame violent crimes on “violent” video games. At the time we were chatting, we observed that there were hundreds of thousands of people all around the world playing Call of Duty Black Ops 2 at the same time as him. We wondered whether any of them had ever, would ever, or were at that time actually hurting (or desiring to hurt) anyone.

Dec and Brady Gaming_unshackled

Tonight I asked my youngest son (12) what he thinks of these kinds of games. Here is his response:

It stimulates your brain. You think about the strategy. For instance, you might see someone on top of a building; you can’t get out of where you are and you don’t have the right weapon for longer range shooting, so you use your brain to work around the problem. Does it make you want to go out and kill people? No. The whole fact that you’re shooting guns is irrelevant. It’s a strategy game where you want to win the match and it’s intense, fast paced. You can ignore the fact that you’re killing people. You don’t think about that. You just think about getting extra scores. It’s irrelevant that it’s supposedly ‘shooting someone’.

I asked him, “When you play a game like that, do you find that it’s a release of energy? Or do you feel MORE stressed after playing?”

It depends what happens. If you lose by a lot or something unfair happens, it can be stressful I suppose, but otherwise it can be a good challenge and really fun. You feel like you’ve achieved something.

Being non-sexist and all, I decided to also ask my daughter (10) what she thinks. She doesn’t play “violent” video games as much as her brothers, but she does occasionally enjoy playing Halo. I asked her, “How do you feel when you play a game like Halo?”

I feel like I am the person and I’m in a big adventure. I feel free and I don’t think that it could make me violent in real life. Because I could never actually shoot someone.

She has also played Skyrim a little bit, which has awesome graphics, and would be considered more violent than Halo.

Yeah I think Skyrim is a little violent but it’s not like I would get a real life sword and stab someone! Sometimes I do find it a little freaky, but it’s just so much fun because well, it’s just fun!

I tried asking my 19 year old son, but he said his brain isn’t functioning well enough to formulate his thoughts into words tonight. He got up at the crack of dawn today, travelled three hours to go to TAFE college, and then another three hours to come home late today after a full day at his course. So it seems all his game playing hasn’t turn him into a “delinquent” after all! Nor did “shooting zombies” turn him into a zombie!

What Other People Think

Many, many people make the assumption that “violent” games cause violent behaviour.

If you consider the huge number of people playing these games, why aren’t all of those people being violent?

If you consider the huge number of people playing these games, isn’t it statistically quite likely that, if a violent crime is committed, the offender will be a gamer ?

Does this mean that “violent” video games cause violence? I think that is a fairly large leap to make, and it is certainly not in keeping with my real life observations of people who play these games. Nor is it in keeping with the many, many other radical unschooling families around the world whose children have been raised in loving, connected homes with no arbitrary limits placed on game playing. Nor is it backed up by a recent study conducted by Texas A&M International University associate professor, Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson. The results of the study suggest that “Violent games may help people work through their frustrations with real life and calm down without increasing aggressive behaviors in real life”. If a gamer (or anyone!) does commit a crime, it is pretty much guaranteed that there are some other pretty big factors involved; perhaps a dysfunctional family, bullying at school or a maladaptive personality. Rather than blaming the games, perhaps people could start using them!

There is a reason why I keep putting “violent” in quotation marks when referring to video games. There are some key differences between depictions of violence, and actual violence.

If you look at a person playing a first person shooter game, what do you see? A person, usually sitting on a soft, comfortable lounge, holding a plastic game controller in their hands, often chatting with friends, sometimes laughing, looking at pixelated images on a televisions screen, and certainly not hurting anybody.

If you look at a parent walking into the room where their child or teen is playing a “violent” video game, you may see the parent roll their eyes, you may hear an angry, frustrated tirade, you may observe a subtle or not so subtle judgment of the game and the person playing the game.

Which is more damaging to the gamer? The game itself, or the judgment of their choice to play it?

What would happen if parents could

  •   accept their child/teen’s choice to play a particular game
  •   delight in the fact that they are enjoying their chosen activity,
  •   trust that they will be okay, and perhaps even
  •   play the game alongside them!!

A child/teen playing games with the support, interest and involvement of a loving parent is much better off than a child who feels judged, shamed and guilty for playing. It’s certainly been true in our experience and I have discovered that I care much more about connecting with my child and respecting their preferences, than I do about connecting with the idea that “violent” video games cause violence. Because, to be honest, I just don’t think it’s true!

Recommended Reading:

Food Freedom in Action

I wrote recently about our journey to Food Freedom. Tonight after a bit of Valentine’s Day food fun, I realised it was a good example of what I was talking about before, so here is a snapshot of Food Freedom in action. 🙂

A sleepover on Valentine’s Day seemed like a good excuse to try out a new recipe: Raw Chocolate Hearts, made with raw cacao powder, pure maple syrup and organic coconut oil (I flavoured it with some peppermint essence for extra pizazz!) After letting it set for not-quite-long-enough in the freezer (because who can wait, really!?), the fun began!

The girls had fun cutting out some shapes in the not-quite-frozen chocolate
The girls had fun cutting out some shapes in the not-quite-frozen chocolate – it hadn’t had time to set hard so it was deliciously gooey and messy!
The tasting began and the verdict was………
A definite thumbs up!
A definite thumbs up!
Yummy gooey deliciousness, even for self-proclaimed non-chocolate-lovers!
Yummy gooey deliciousness, even for self-proclaimed non-chocolate-lovers!
Who needs shape cutters when God gave us fingers?
Who needs shape cutters when God gave us fingers?
Along comes one of the teens to see what the fuss is all about, and he has a taste...
Along comes one of the teens to see what the fuss is all about, and he has a taste…
Nah, I'd prefer to eat some grapes thanks
Nah, I’d prefer to eat some grapes thanks
Yum, that was nice!
Yummo! More for everyone else. 🙂
Five minutes after the eating of the raw peppermint chocolate, the choice for yet another child was grapes. Neither food was said to be better or worse than the other. It was all just food, and it was all delicious! No guilt, no judgment, just food.
Five minutes after the eating of the raw peppermint chocolate, the choice for yet another child was grapes. Neither food was said to be better or worse than the other. It was all just food, and it was all delicious! No guilt, no judgment, just food.

I am so glad we no longer have an environment of food tension, judgements surrounding food, guilt, shaming and control in our family. It is wonderful to have children who are free to really taste and enjoy food, even if it’s “unhealthy” or, God forbid, “junk” food. We’ll be waking up to freshly made vegetable juice in the morning, and it has absolutely nothing to do with having to “compensate” for the chocolate tonight. It just so happens that tomorrow is a juicing day. We’ll also have a fresh fruit protein smoothie for breakfast, made with home made raw nut butter and organic chia seeds from the Kimberleys in Australia, amongst other delicious ingredients. The smoothie is nothing to do with anything that was eaten tonight or at any other time. It just so happens to be one of our favourite breakfasts at the moment!

Food Freedom

© Daemys | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Daemys | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

We did an elimination diet once.

We were convinced that our children reacted to certain foods, and being unsure which ones, we figured we had to either ban all suspect foods (which we’d been trying to do), or work out which ones were causing the problem. Like with most diets, we found it incredibly restrictive, and we didn’t finish the program. Like with most diets, we gained two pounds a whole lot of baggage surrounding the issue of food. We had been slowly heading in this direction anyway, assuming that most “bad behaviour” was being caused by foods the children had eaten. The elimination diet just sealed the deal.

Food went from being something we ate, to something we thought about, restricted and controlled. It went from being a benign substance, to a powerful monster.

Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate that some people have food sensitivities. And eating those foods (if you are able to determine which ones truly do cause a genuine problem) can have annoying side effects. Then there are allergies, which obviously need to be taken much more seriously. The problem is, many people treat sensitivities and intolerances as seriously as they would if it was a life threatening allergy.

And most people also give food in general WAY too much power.

We all want the best for our children and ourselves, so many of us seek the “perfect diet”. What floats your boat? Paleo? Vegan? Vegetarian? Lacto-Ovo vegetarian? Raw? Blood type diets? Nutritional typing? Atkins? A see-food diet? 😉

It really wasn’t meant to be this complicated! I know, I know, I can hear the cries of “But it would be different if we weren’t surrounded by all this JUNK food!”

In an ideal world, we would have easy access to an abundance of only natural foods, without the temptation of man-made or man-altered foodstuffs. But we don’t live in that world. Our children are surrounded by all sorts of food temptations, as we are. When we react to those foods with fear, judgment, lecturing, restrictions and controls, our children will no longer be able to have an unfettered relationship to food. It will become a powerful substance capable of inciting all sorts of power struggles within a family, all sorts of internal struggles and all sorts of drama and hang ups about an item that is primarily there to nourish and satisfy us.

Oh, but “sugar is addictive”! We can’t just let our children have free reign over food! All they’d eat is lollies and chocolate! They’d never eat anything other than junk food! They’d live on coke and chips!

Do you really think that’s true? Do you really think that a child living in a house filled with a wide variety of foods is going to only ever eat the “bad stuff”?

What about if there was no hierarchy of foods drummed into our children? What if it was just food? What about if they were TRULY free to choose?

Let’s say a child chooses to eat a bag of lollies for breakfast. (I’ve never heard of that happening, but I’m sure it’s possible, especially if they are never normally allowed to eat them.) Let’s say they also decide to eat a bag of lollies for lunch. What do you think they’d eat next time they were hungry? Do you really think they’d ONLY eat lollies, chips, coke and chocolate?

Chances are, they are more likely to eat those foods if they have been elevated on a pedestal and labelled “Bad” and “Forbidden”, which the child is mostly likely to interpret as “Good” and “Desirable”! Even then, they are extremely unlikely to live on a diet consisting only of “junk food”. They may binge for awhile, especially if they fear the foods will be taken away again soon, but before you know it they will develop a better relationship with food, eating when they are hungry, stopping when they are full, and choosing from a wide variety of foods.

In a research paper reviewing available data on the effects of parental feeding attitudes and styles on child nutritional behaviour, it was found that parents tend to use two primary forms of control regarding food: restriction (of junk food, and amounts of food) and pressure (to eat healthy foods or more food in general). Restriction of “junk foods” was found to have a positive outcome in the short term, but more negative effects in the long term, including increased intake of food in the absence of hunger, and a poor ability to self-regulate. Pressuring children was also found to be counter intuitive, with a further study specifically linking “pressure to eat” with a reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables. Generally, the research suggests that “In the long run, parental control attempts may have negative effects on the quality of children’s diets by reducing their preferences for those foods.” I highly recommend reading the above article (it’s not all that long, I promise!) if you want to understand some of the research showing the potential harm caused by parental good intentions when it comes to attempts at ensuring children have a “healthy diet”.

Here’s what my free-to-choose-their-own-food kids chose for breakfast today:

The older boys chose to have organic eggs from our own chooks, and toast.
The older boys chose to have organic eggs from our own chooks, and toast.
Declan's choice was a green smoothie
Declan’s choice was a green smoothie
Molly chose Chocoate Banana-Nut “Ice Cream”.
… which ended up being more delicious and fun inside a real ice cream waffle cone, apparently 🙂

I love finding delicious home made alternatives to commercially prepared foods. This one is a winner, for sure. Ingredients: raw cacao powder, frozen bananas and raw pecans. Recipe courtesy of the lovely Jo Whitton of Quirky Cooking.

Most days they make similar choices, although it’s not often “ice cream”. The younger two mostly choose a green or fruit smoothie, or a raw breakfast of some kind; the older two teens typically eat our home-grown organic eggs for breakfast. Prior to getting chooks, they usually ate Weet Bix. 😉

Do our children eat a “perfect diet”? No.

Do I? No!

Will restrictions and fears and limitations help us eat a better diet? Maybe, for the children, for a short time (if you work VERY VERY hard at it, and are prepared to say no a lot and fight the ensuing power struggle). But at what cost? Will those restrictions, fears and limitations improve our relationship with food? Not at all. Will it improve our relationship with our children? Absolutely not.

Let’s imagine an entirely different scenario to the typical environment where parents exert a lot of restriction and pressure on their children’s food intake: Let’s fill our homes with delicious, nutritious foods, say yes when our children ask us to buy or make something in particular (unless of course there is an allergy involved), allow our children freedom of choice of all the foods in the house, and focus on our own choices rather than micromanaging theirs. Imagine a child growing up in this environment, without all the baggage and power struggles commonly associated with food.

To be honest, in our family we’re still recovering from our former experience with food controls, but I am SO glad we are on the path to true food freedom. I am so thankful for our unschooling journey, because it is due to this life of questioning the “have to’s” and trusting our children (within a context of loving, engaged parents) that I have been able to question the impact of micromanaging our children’s diets.

Does focussing on food and attempting to have lots of control over our children’s diets increase or decrease the power of food in our lives?

Gaming in Schools?

My daughter loves a show on TV called “Good Game Spawn Point”. It’s a super fun, interesting talk show about all things gaming. She was watching it tonight when one of the hosts suddenly declared:

Sometimes I think I learn more from video games than I ever did in school. Maths, science, problem solving, reading, history, geography, how to work as a team…

© Cherrymerry | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Cherrymerry | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

It was an intro to the next segment of a show: an interview with a teacher who has begun to integrate commercial video games (such as Formula 1 Racing, Sonic Racing etc) into the classroom, mostly into science lessons, “to make it more interesting for the students”.

When asked what inspired her to begin using commercial video games as a teaching tool, she answered: “I play a lot of games myself, and when I play them I realise that with a lot of games, you actually need to apply a lot of skills like maths, logic, problem solving, team work in multiplayer mode… When I watch the kids playing games, they’re really motivated and they like it, so I investigated different types of games that I could put into the classroom.”

Bajo, the host of the show and interviewer for this segment, observed some children in the classroom, who were trying to find out if talking on a phone, or holding it on your shoulder, distracts you when you’re driving. The conclusion? “So far we’ve learned that driving without a phone is much safer than driving with a phone.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like rocket science, but I’m sure the kids absorbed the lesson more effectively, and had more fun doing it, than if they’d just been told the information or had statistics presented to them.

Bajo asked the teacher if she had seen many improvements in how they learn, to which she replied, “Yes, because they are having fun so they understand it a lot better. When we introduce concepts that are not familiar to them and we actually put a game into it, they connect with the game and they’ll be less fearful of the topic. They’re more likely to actually want to learn it. The kids who are normally really shy won’t be shy when they play the game because the games do encourage you to have a go. It’s okay to fail in the game.”

At one stage the children were all asked to sit around the edge of the classroom, while two were selected to play a game on the Kinect (Xbox) console. I’m not sure if this is standard procedure (two children playing while the others look on), but it seemed to be so based on other footage they showed. One of the “children” was Bajo, the presenter.

After they had played the game, the teacher gave her assessment:

“You displayed some really good teamwork skills. When Daniel gave instructions, you followed them. But I think you got a little bit distracted sometimes, waving your hands, and Daniel was trying to get you back on track.”

Okaaaaay well, again, not rocket science. But at least they were having fun, right? Even if they were somewhat “distracted”.

Some of the children were asked what they like about being able to play video games in the classroom:

“Well, the games are fun and they help you learn better.”

“Everyone gets to participate and it’s really fair.”

“People don’t usually think video games can be educational, but we’ve found a way to make it educational, because it’s, like, more interesting than getting a paper and pen and just writing down stuff or copying down stuff or just getting a book.”

Kudos to the teacher for trying to modernise the classroom, but I question whether simply making it more fun by the inclusion of video games is really enough. I’m sure it is better than without the games, but the use of the games in the classroom seemed …. Dumbed down. Scripted.

The games were being used as a tool to try to get the children more engaged in the teacher-driven curriculum. Using what the students love to “teach” the lessons the teacher wants them to learn, to complete the tasks set down by the teacher. It seemed to simply be a more creative, modern way to “put information into children’s heads”.

Having short turns of a game (accompanied by expected outcomes and lessons to be learned) and sharing it around thirty children is very different to the natural learning that occurs when children are thoroughly engrossed in and captivated by a game. It is very different to a child at home getting deeply into the levels and complexities of the game, solving puzzles, exploring complex worlds, completing levels and challenges that sometimes take hours or more.

How wonderful it would be if the teacher was able to trust in the intrinsic nature of children to learn through play. If the learning flowed more naturally, as an unscripted side effect of playing the games; if the games were more central rather than just serving the teacher-driven goal. Who knows where it might lead!! Imagine groups of children engrossed in gaming, with the adult interacting naturally, playing alongside, chatting to the kids while they play.

Funnily enough, that is actually what does happen in an unschooling household!! 

Whilst the teacher began her journey by recognising the learning that was naturally happening when she played video games at home (without anyone expecting her to learn, or feeling the need to “teach” her by using the games to draw out “lessons”), she ended up failing to transfer to the children in her care that same trust in natural learning as a byproduct of gaming.

As Steven Johnson says in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter video games are not “rotting our brains” but are in fact becoming more and more sophisticated tools for learning, posing new cognitive challenges that are actually making our minds measurably sharper. There really is no need to dumb them down and turn them in to “lessons”.

In the words of the final girl interviewed for the show, video games in the classroom “make everything seem fun, even though it’s really boring.”

Kids are smart! They would obviously prefer to be able to do gaming and other fun things in the classroom, but they’re quite able to learn from the games without having to have that learning scripted for them. And in fact, they are more likely to intrinsically learn something new and “cutting edge” if they are able to really delve into the complexities of the game, rather than focus on completing set tasks that supposedly help them learn what the teacher wants to teach them!

I am so very glad that my unschooled children are privileged to live in an environment where there is absolute trust that learning happens. All the time. Every day. Even while gaming. ESPECIALLY while gaming. And without a lesson needing to be taught.

Gaining from Gaming


I recently wrote about “Scary Screens” and my journey towards trusting rather than fearing THE SCREEN!

One form of “screens” seems to cause many parents so much angst, and can often have journalists racing to their editors with an alarmist article ready for release upon the easily-scared, anti-screens public. It is commonly known as gaming, and includes Xbox, Playstation, Wii, Nintendo DS, Computer games and probably other mediums I can’t even think of right now.

Gaming (also known as video gaming, or digital gaming) has come a long, long way since the Parker brothers created Monopoly. And it’s also progressed in cyber leaps and bounds since the first ever “video game” was developed way back in 1947 (bet you didn’t know they’ve been around that long!). And there is certainly very little resemblance to the games my brothers and I used to play on our Atari. Gosh, the excitement of the various line drawing designs of basketball, hockey, table tennis and soccer were almost as exciting back then as Xbox Kinect is today! The sound of the ping and the pong of the little cyber “ball”, and the race to stop that little dot from getting between the gaps in the lines kept us glued to our big old chunky TV set for hours! 🙂

The parents of this current generation (that includes me) grew up in a VERY different reality to the children of today. Marc Prensky first coined the term “digital native” to describe the children who have grown up in the age of digital technologies. Some digital native children will be lucky enough to have “digital immigrants” for parents (those who were born before the existence of digital technology but have adapted to it to some extent later in life). However, it is still common for us to struggle with the degree to which our children seek to embrace and interact with their digital world. It is something we never really experienced as children. The attraction of the screen, and its saturation in our culture, is something we don’t really understand, in spite of the fact that we use computers etc. Our experience with digital technologies is something we’ve adapted to. In contrast, it has been part of our children’s worlds for their entire life.

According to the Interactive Australia 2009 report on the state of gaming in Australian culture, the average age of gamers is now 30. Are these, perhaps, adults who were forbidden or limited as kids, and who are now able to play when and for how long they choose, and so they are reveling in their new freedom?  Or does it simply speak of the fact that gaming is, dare I say it, fascinating and enjoyable? Yes, I can hear the naysayers crying out, “But what about the South Korean couple who got so obsessed by their gaming that they neglected their real baby?” And I will say, there is something more going on there! There was something seriously wrong with this picture, and with the people themselves, to be able to make a choice such as that. It is not the game designers neglecting to feed and care for the baby. It is the parents. Out of the multitude of people who play video games, when there is one case of something going wrong, everyone blames the game. When David Staniforth recently died after a blood clot in the lung, apparently caused by sitting still for too long, it was the video gaming that was the featured issue in the media. The father was actually quoted as saying, “He had probably been on all night, on the computer at his desk, on Facebook or gaming — one or the other.” After that, his son’s friend said Chris felt a pounding in his chest but eventually fell asleep. The next morning, Chris and his friend were going to apply for jobs and Chris collapsed outside the job center.” So it was assumed he spent all night gaming, then fell asleep, then woke “the next morning” (after staying up all night?) and then collapsed and died. If he’d been sitting down for that length of time reading a book, I can’t imagine anyone blaming books for his death! But once they would have. It was once the humble novel that was the target of suspicion and fear mongering. It was said that people who read novels would be day dreamers, and unable to fit in to society. Reading books was not revered in the same way that it is today.

When tennis ace Serena Williams underwent emergency surgery for a blood clot, no one suggested that people should stop playing tennis. When people suffer from the same condition after a long plane flight, no one suggests that plane flights are bad and should be severely limited. Instead, it is recognised that getting up and moving around occasionally, and keeping the blood flowing, will help to prevent this problem.

If gaming is the cause of neglected babies, or deep vein thrombosis, then why aren’t more gamers suffering from these problems? The reality is that many, many people play video games, and they often play for many hours in one session. And the vast majority of them lead happy, productive lives! If they don’t, then instead of blaming the game, perhaps it would be more pertinent to ponder the big picture of their life, and contemplate the possible causes behind why the person is drawn to games, or screens of some kind, to that degree, and to the detriment of their own happiness. Are they unhappy because they’re gaming? Or are they gaming because they’re unhappy?  The people I know who enjoy video games play them simply because they… enjoy them! And they do not neglect other areas of their lives.

Researchers are beginning to realise some of the benefits of video games. Research carried out at Bristol University on 700 children aged from 7-16, showed that children learn a range of strategic thinking and planning skills as well as other valuable learning outcomes, through playing video games. An article in The Wall Street Journal suggests that gaming increases creativity and the ability to pay attention to more than six things at once (coimpared to four with non-gamers). Research Professor, Peter Gray, Ph.D., outlines the many benefits of playing video games in his recent article. The supposed “link” between video games that depict violence, and violence in real life, is now being questioned. And Science Daily reported in September last year that gamers had solved a science problem that had stumped scientists for over a decade. It took the gamers three weeks.

I could write more, but realistically people will usually be able to find evidence to supposedly support almost any theory anyway, so I will simply finish by sharing our family’s experience; what we’ve found to be GREAT about gaming, the ways in which I have seen my children benefit from playing video games.

  • Joy!
  • Social connection (the pleasure of gaming with friends or family IRL or via Xbox Live or Skype)
  • Teamwork
  • Opportunities to practise conflict resolution skills when aforesaid teamwork is lacking! 🙂
  • Problem solving skills
  • Strategic thinking
  • Spatial reasoning (Have you ever tried to navigate a virtual race track at high speed?!)
  • Memorisation (I get so lost when watching them navigate their way around complex worlds)
  • Reading skills (no, it’s not “reading the classics”, but it is culturally relevant contemporary language)
  • Mathematical thinking and calculations
  • Computer programming skills
  • An all-round good time! 🙂

There would be more, if I stopped to think about it. What about you? Have you discovered benefits in addition to the ones I have listed?

Please note that for unschooled kids and teens, gaming usually plays a very different role when compared to school kids. It is one option of many on offer throughout the days and nights of “free time”, whereas school children often use gaming to detox from the hours spent in the school environment. So the two scenarios will tend to look and be very different. I highly recommend this page, if you’d like to learn more about gaming within an unschooling context.

I promise that my next post will not be about screens! But it will certainly be written on one. And read on one too.

Image credit: lhfgraphics / 123RF Stock Photo