Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

What Do Kids-Turned-Learning-Game-Designers Inspire Us? (#GBL)

Kids need to be content creators instead of just information consumers. This sounds like a cliche – people might think the idea is just a buzzword, not necessarily an urgent matter. However, in the following case, we observe kids in charge of their own project – making a game to join the Healthivore Video Game Contest. They learned the subject by building knowledge, and demonstrated the self-motivated actions needed to complete and polish a project and the time management needed for project control.

When the 3 girls of 5th graders from Spicewood Elementary (Texas) decided to join the contest, they started out doing research to choose topics to cover in their game. They selected a variety of materials that look the most important to them. The story sets the stage: players are enrolled into a training academy to be equipped with proper health knowledge so that they can save others. In the designing process, they tried to balance the entertainment and learning, to balance the difficulty by tuning parameters again and again, even to balance different opinions and resource-sharing between themselves. Everything was self-organized.

game-based learning


When making the game, they looked into the subject contents which otherwise might not be in their radar. They embedded the information into game-play. They identified the main ideas, then put them into bite-sized paragraphs so that players can pick them up on the way. Some levels have quizzes; players need to make right choices to pass. In order to encourage gamers to learn, they even made a cheat sheet on their result page. 12 levels were made, complete with a final exam at the last level. What a training! We saw kids try to build questions and fun learning experiences from a learning designer’s perspective. They might not be as mature as adult designers, but they built a great learning experience for themselves and other kids. Their friends got interested in what they did, and learned that they can create learning games for what they are learning, too. How does that inspire us?

The tool they used, Gamestar Mechanic, is a platform for making nice-looking 2-D games. There are some easy-to-use but powerful tricks like the self-generated enemy (the girls used it to simulate fast-generating cancer cells). Overall it’s for beginners, so that kids can start the experience with design-thinking instead of dry coding. With friendly tools like this, kids have more ways to express themselves, to learn a subject not only from the students’ role, but also from the teachers’ viewpoint. This helps them learn how to learn. (See another game introducing “internet”, built for their school exhibition event.)

game-based learning

Gamestar Mechanic has a kids’ community and a well-designed gamification mechanism. Kids can get into the game design experience and enjoy a game designer’s joy pretty quickly. Kids should not learn coding before they learn designing. Coding is pretty dry; without context and the final picture in mind, it’s hard to persist through the coding journey. In short, interest leads to autonomy, and autonomy leads to mastery. Coherent with the learning theory of constructionism, this process will also have a by-product called creativity. Have you ever imagined that playing platform games can let you learn about health or internet without getting bored? If your students don’t like the games these girls made, it’s not hard to let your kids make games for themselves.

The saying that “kids should learn coding early” has been floating around for a long time. But how do we know that these programming languages they learn will be useful? Fortran, Pascal…. these are no longer used, and even Javascript might fade away someday. How to learn is much more important than what to learn. To learn coding or not to learn? If it’s not affiliated with interest, purpose, and autonomy, it’s not organic, so it won’t grow up inside the learners (not to mention it will wither if it’s forced). But so many tools like Gamestar Mechanic or Scratch, or other digital storytelling tools, are available. Today’s learners have a much better opportunity than ever to build interest.

A lot of stories about teachers teaching programming to elementary school kids were shared in a publication from the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) : Computer Science K–8: Building a Strong Foundation. It explores how Computer Science (CS) topics and concepts can impact learning in the K–8 classroom, and offers practical strategies and resources. Positive experiences at an early age will motivate students to further explore the opportunities that a CS education has to offer. Most examples from the paper are about game-making and playful learning experience. Hope these opportunities could connect to kids directly, not determined by what schools or teachers offer.

A short conclusion : Digital tools provide more opportunities than ever to enable interest-driven learning and learning by doing, the key is “to fuel the power of pull”.


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Categorised in: A Featured Story, Game-Based Learning

5 Responses »

  1. These 3 girls’ video game won honorable mention in the national competition. There was only one nationwide winner from the elementary division. Their game “Help With Health” is on the first row of honorable mention awardees. Please support them by clicking the “Like” at the top right of the page, and send them up to leaderboard.

  2. Hi. Interested in learners’ (collaborative) game making? Then check out
    the European MAGICAL project It has
    – a community library of game making tools for learners
    – a community bibliography on Mendeley
    Come and see us 🙂


  1. Learning by Designing Games (with useful resources, #GBL) | Classroom Aid
  2. What Do Kids-Turned-Learning-Game-Designers Ins...

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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