November 21, 2018
In my post about teaching younger kids, I focused a lot on the idea that it’s important to get kids to want to learn. That’s probably easier with younger kids than with older kids. I mentioned that our oldest really likes to play computer games, and at this young age, we’re able to parlay that interest into plenty of opportunities to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.
I can easily imagine the objections, though. What happens when he gets older and he still only wants to play computer games?
First off, I’ll say that I have always been way into computer games for my whole life, and I’ve had periods of my life where I have definitely spent more time playing computer games than was good for me. But! When I was in high school, I knew far more than the average kid about ancient history, medieval history, and 20th century history, solely because of computer games. I had no intention to actually learn anything from those games. I just really enjoyed the games, and since they happened to be set in certain time periods, I ended up learning a lot more about those time periods so that I could place the games in the proper historical context.
I had a reason to learn, so I learned. And I didn’t just learn from the games. Because of the curiosity I developed in the games, I ended up tending to read lots of books on lots of topics related to the games. I enjoyed Age of Empires and similar games, and I ended up reading Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. I played a lot of Starcraft, and that fomented a love of Sci-Fi.
But even if it’s true that there is nothing to be learned from games, the big reason (in my opinion) that kids like to play games rather than do other things that we think are more useful, is that they feel like they can control things in the game. The corollary to this is that they play games when they don’t feel like they can control things in their lives.
As I get older, I’ve realized that this is exactly why I spent so much of my young adulthood playing games. The games give you a sense of accomplishment and a sense of mastery. But once you can achieve those things in the real world, games become much less attractive. Of course, it would be silly to assume that everyone out there is just like me, but there’s a reason that silly mobile games are designed the way they are. Everyone has that instinct to accomplish things and master something, and the quicker the iterations come, the more you want to do the thing. Games allow you to accomplish and master quicker and quicker so that you want to spend your time playing games instead of doing something that may have rewards off in the future, like studying.
Video games are just one particular thing that parents deal with, but I think they give us a lot of instructive lessons. The big one is that we should focus on making the useful stuff more attractive than the video games. A lot of people view parenting as an endless quest to get kids to stop doing things that the parents don’t think the kids should be doing. Stop running, stop fighting, stop yelling, stop watching TV, stop playing video games, etc. But sometimes we don’t give the kids attractive alternatives.
I know we all think that it would be great if our kids would just trust our judgment and believe us when we say that they need to do certain things, but alas. They need to learn most things through personal experience, just like we did. The best we can do is to offer them lots of opportunities to discover for themselves that work (at least certain kinds of work), or study, or quality family time can be more fulfilling than whatever thing it is they would rather be doing. And if we can’t make those things more fulfilling, then should we really be so hard on the kids when they don’t want to do them?
If we want our kids to spend more time studying, we need to offer them opportunities for mastery and accomplishment that compete with those feelings they get from their games or whatever else they want to be doing. I think for studying, this means things like letting them run with a topic. In school, it’s generally frowned upon to get too far ahead of the class because it’s quite inconvenient for the teacher. The kids are expected to do well, but not too well. Contrast this with video games, where the incentive is to get as good as you can, as fast as you can. Any subject taught in school can be like that, if only we let it.
It also means offering them real opportunities to use the knowledge that they’ve gained, whether it’s doing some simple computer programming projects, or going to some kind of maker-space to make physical projects, or being active on discussions forums for the topics they’re learning. In a given class at school, most of the kids aren’t interested in a particular topic, all of the discussion is driven by the teacher, and it’s often seen as uncool to seem too interested in the topic at hand. If you put kids in environments where it’s useful to have knowledge, like basically any environment with adults who aren’t jerks, or online environments dedicated to the topic, kids instantly become more interested in learning. You can harness that social desire to fit in, and channel toward something useful. But first you need to expose the kids to environments where useful things are valued. Once again, video games just automatically provide this. The video game itself is an environment where everyone values achievement in the video game.
These tactics won’t just help your kids succeed at studying, they’ll help them succeed at anything. In practically any endeavor, it’s important to do projects and build things and find a community centered around doing that thing well. The community will help them learn skills and find new ideas, and the projects will help hone their abilities. Being a self-starter is one of the most valuable traits a person can have, and it comes about by learning that there is real fulfillment to be had by developing expertise and accomplishing things in the real world.
We're sharing what we've learned in the course of doing some unconventional things in the hope that we can help others do better and get more out of life.