Guest post: Minecraft and ASD – "unlimited screen time has been invaluable for my son"
Kate Thompson considers the benefits of Minecraft, and argues that we need to stop vilifying screen time and move away from a 'one-size-fits-all' model of education
Posted on: Mon 20-Jul-15 18:13:39
(23 comments )
Not one of my four children has been taught to code. Yet three of them can, and one is extremely adept. For me, coding is on the event horizon of education. We still misunderstand how children learn and persist in seeking to quantify, quality check and present a body of information to be relayed to the next generation as if Gladstonian Liberalism were still the cutting edge of education planning. Coding blows this idea out of the water.
School often gets in the way of learning for far too many children, particularly those on the autism spectrum. Trying to define (let alone impose) a one-size-fits-all criteria is as sensible as attempting to find a universal means of delivery. This applies as much to parenting as to education. The world is progressing at an alarming rate with multiple platforms for children to learn from. What matters is not the method of delivery or learning but that children are enthused, involved and understanding what they participate in. The learning will just happen – you can't stop it.
I used to believe firmly that a "good education" was essential to do well, excellent teaching and practice the only route to success. Then I had a child who didn't fit the mould – and discovered I needed to learn about him first, allowing him to define his own modus operandi. My son has spent almost as much time out of school as in, and although he has undoubtedly received a "good education" at times, most of his knowledge is not from school. Interest piqued, he will devour books, research online and learn from YouTube lectures. He sees no boundaries and just feels his way forward – this "can-do" attitude has enabled him to partition harddrives, learn about quantum theory and master Elvish.
The day we permitted him protected but virtually unregulated access to screen time was akin to standing on a precipice 200m up with no harness, the antithesis of good parenting.
Watching his progress has been terrifying, heartwarming and hugely liberating. The day we permitted him protected but virtually unregulated access to screen time was akin to standing on a precipice 200m up with no harness, the antithesis of good parenting. No more thirty minute time limits as a reward for completing tasks! But it wasn't about removing sanctions and incentives, it was about embracing computer time as a valuable means of learning, interacting and offering real opportunities.
Initially our son immersed himself in gaming, Minecraft in particular. His older brother coded a website and server to host gameplay. On work experience at 15 he participated in a graduate programme, having his code adopted. He was asked to build a Minecraft map of his school as an orientation tool for new Year 7s – and his younger brother has similar aspirations.
Minecraft is unique. It encourages social skills and interaction as well as guiding players towards coding in order to fully engage with the game and personalise the experience. Constructing worlds also requires a basic understanding of GCSE-level physics; Redstone, which allows you to build electrical circuits, is based on logic gates, the building blocks of modern computers. There is a Minecraft Education edition which over 5,500 teachers in 40+ countries have used to teach subjects from STEM to languages, history and art. Some physicists actually speculate the universe behaves in a way similar to Minecraft. The blocks in the game are similar to chunks or quanta in quantum mechanics and many of the phenomena we see in the real world can be explained in the way Minecraft renders its world. There is definitely more to the game than digging and escaping Creepers.
Learning to code requires a degree of confidence and willingness to feel your way, which comes naturally to those with high functioning autism. Immersion is the only real method of "teaching" coding, and it's this immersion that children on the autism spectrum find so calming. Those with ASD are typically anxious, working in parallel on several ideas, thoughts and problems at once. Autistic people may seem single-minded – but that extreme focus is usually to drown out this unbearable overloading. It's a coping mechanism.
If we continue to use computer time as a carrot, rather than an integral tool for learning that children can learn to use appropriately we straitjacket the next generation in an anachronistic bubble. We must teach children to be critical and analytical instead. There's a huge difference between playing a simple app game for two hours and trying to code a Minecraft "Mod". Not all games are equal. The most important scientific breakthroughs are made when normal constraints are removed, where we don't even know the problem, let alone how to reach the solution.
Education needs to be flexible and future-proof – we must equip children for the demands of tomorrow so they can become independent thinkers and learners. But this involves more guidance and less imparting of knowledge – and that's true of parenting too.
By Kate Thompson
My children have been taught to code and also do all kinds of coding at home - it's not unusual you know
That's great! Sadly it's also not unusual for parents to use screen time in a carrot and stick fashion, schools too.
Thank you Interestingly self-limiting also kicks in after a while and it becomes a spring board for other activities.
Fantastic post. I took ds2 who is 8 to Minecon.It was great for me! I really learned a lot. Ds 2 is also home edded. Dp and I are gradually getting there re screen time etc. thanks for the post.
I don't feel confident that we know enough about screens and games to allow unlimited screen time for any of mine. Ds doesn't learn social interaction from it, which is essential for him. So I'm glad it works for you but it's not necessarily an answer for everyone.
My ASD child has to have screen limitation other wise he would die from malnutrition, dehydration, lack of sleep complications. Unlimited screen time means that he does not sleep, does not eat, does not communicate and he shuts himself away in isolation refusing to interact with real life.
Self limitation does not kick in for him, and I am not prepared to watch him damage himself to the point where it might (after months). Glad it works for you but as you say one size does not fit all and what works for your child is simply that. Something that works for your child. A lot of children it would not work for.
I would love to know your view on the fact that Minecraft is actively discouraged for ASD kids by some professionals as it is simply too addictive and can cause long term and damaging problems. Health, relationship wise etc.
I am sorry but you sound like you have been sponsered by the creators or minecraft to counter act the negative aspects of the game.
I think it's a good point that education can mean using a screen and we shouldn't run away from that any more than 100 years ago anyone would have complained about kids looking at a blackboard all day (though even in my childhood adults complained I "always had my nose in a book").
And that Minecraft is a great tool to encourage programming and logical thinking, and helps geeky kids find like-minded ones (just wear a Minecraft T-shirt). Thing is I'm not worried about dn (autistic) or ds (possibly) learning to code and research - they will learn that with as much computer time as they can get. But what they both need to learn (dn in particular) is when to eat, that sleep is important, that it is more important to get up and use the toilet than to keep playing minecraft, and practice social skills - and until I figure out how to block most people's conversations and only allow verified people to talk to my kids, I'm not allowing Minecraft chat - can't even allow Zach and Stampy videos if I'm not there as too many comments reach the screen withracist/homophobic insults.
Maybe when they are teens rather than 6-7it might be possible to given them the internet freely on condition they wash daily, eat a nutritious meal twice daily, and do a few chores - I may become that parent of internet memes who leaves a list of tasks ending with "do those then I will give you today's router password".
In the meantime, though, screen time needs rationing and both boys forced to eat, exercise, and sometimes wash, whether they like it or not.
I seriously doubt anyone would advocate gaming instead of parenting? Just viewing it completely differently. My son was non verbal until aged 3 (which seems bizarre looking back since he is so high functioning) and we needed visual timetables, cues, key fobs, etc for many years -he still has them at High School. We spend hours on physio, cooking with him, teaching life skills etc, we just don't have half hour on the computer as a reward. It's always available when there is nothing to do. Just a "normal' option available to 21st Century kids rather than a special prize or to be withdrawn as a punishment. My three boys went to Minecon with their dad this month too, it was a fantastic family weekend for them. My 13 yr old won a prize for best technical question and coped admirably in the (social situation) because it was within his comfort zone.
As I made clear in my article, I don't advocate a "one size fits all" approach to parenting or education, I do think we need to rethink the role of the computer in our children's lives. I've never heard anyone discouraging Minecraft for ASD kids, as a game it is FAR preferable to many of the unpleasant platform and fighting games, as a coding platform it is hugely educational. Anything can be addictive - sometimes I read until 2am because I can't put my book down....
Local CAMHS department seriously recommends that parents who have not let their child have Minecraft don't let them have it and those that do wean them off it. They have had to deal with so much psychological fall out and relationship breakdown because of the addictiveness of the game and the fact that the child get obsessed with it so it impacts on behaviour and prevents parenting to occur with normal relationship maintenance. With the additional issues of online bullying and the continuation of in school bullying at home. This was at a training course for asd for parents who were likely to have their children diagnosed.
Tbh I think if the parents are savvy enough they could probably use it in their favour but most parents don't have the time to sit down and learn the game properly to be able to do this. The addictiveness and obessiveness that come with the game is astounding, I have seen nt children's parents tear their hair out over it. I wish scratch programming (free program by MIT) was utilised more. A couple of years back I spoke to someone who had just finished a hack conference and they were saying it could be used to build interfaces so that apples could be used as input devices. Very cool and less addictive, even if it appears simplistic on first inspection. Code academy teaches lots of different languages for program for free.
Having navigated the pitfalls of games like Railroad Tycoon etc, and let DS off the leash, Minecraft appeared just as DS started university.
He failed his first year.
They let him back and he repeated the first year, and had the support of his girlfriend. Still, he failed the second year and his girlfriend left him.
Two years later, he has no job and 3 years of student debt.
At the end of the day, being good at minecraft (and all the others) does not get you employed.
I guess the point is that if allowed to explore beyond just the game them there are so many possibilities it opens up for you. My husband is a Tech Fellow for an investment bank and actively recruits Java programmers from the gaming industry. Being good at CODING Minecraft can and does get you employed. Watching back to back YouTube walk throughs is unlikely to. Scratch is great, but most ASD kids are highly visual learners and need the visual feedback something like Minecraft offers. And of course you still have to parent - it's not hands off parenting, it's perceiving screen time in a different way. We all programme and encourage the kids to always look beyond. Leaving them to it is never an option, but then it never should be in any aspect of parenting? Guidance is key. The children who are utterly addicted to just playing or watching YouTube are usually left to their own devices IME.
That's all from me, thanks for having me Guest post on Mumsnet
We've seen positive changes in our son for letting him have minecraft.
He will now use it to wind down from a day at school (or as he currently is, winding down from a haircut!) when usually he would have a meltdown or try to attack me or his siblings.
In the two months that he's had it, he will now make the more appropriate choice of minecrafting, which to us feels like a breakthrough.
At the moment he is obsessed with Stampy and Lionmaker, but we hope we can encourage this into coding at some point when we can get him a laptop.
Be I fully agree with Polter re. camhs.
Over the last couple of years they've shown us consistently that they know very little about asd and parenting a child with asd.
A word to parents - if your child really wants to code, could you start them on relational databases please?
We are desperately short of people who can do this, sadly, coding Minecraft doesn't really help long term.
So if you argue coding is great - do something useful with your code!
Also, the number of people who use Minecraft to actually code and run servers is very, very small, most people just pass time on it doing stuff that is of no real use but surely passes the time (sort of TV with the added thrill of possible RSI down the line).
Yes, I work in IT, yes, I'm short of database administrators - you can tell, I suspect!
Miggsie what would you recommend for a child to start coding, right from scratch, please? I have started homeschooling my DCs so we will have lots of time, and I would like them to learn (well actually I would like us all to learn together!) but have no idea where to start.
I have actually promised them Minecraft though, now that we have a decent laptop at last.
Great thread. I've never limited screen time for my 12 year old with HFA and I am evangelical about the benefits that has brought him. No one believes me though. Constant skepticism. We are not formally learning coding yet but plan too. Your post was particularly thought provoking Miggsie and I will do some googling, get informed and follow your advice .
I never limited screen time for my ds. He's 21, graduated with a 2:1 and about to start a Masters.
Everything I know and have read about Minecraft is about how perfect it is for ASD children. There are even homeschooled groups on there. I have actually never really heard much bad about it, except for it turning children into Minecraft bores, lol.
I have been thinking about this and I would love to know if the ASD children who are able to use Minecraft without damaging obsession, whether they have ever had problems with obsessions getting to the point of not being able to eat, drink, sleep etc because of being so obsessesd.
Just popped back to view the thread -because this came up in my Twitter feed.
"Through experimenting and working together, kids begin to develop skills in creative thinking, math and geometry, and even a bit of geology. And to complete large tasks, they need to plan a strategy, define goals and work together to execute and see the mission through — sort of like having a real job."
It's really interesting as it's not about ASD kids and goes far further than my article.
Miggsie - my husband pioneered relational databases ;) Obsydian was his and he went on to design Sentences which was the first relational database. He designs online trading systems for a major investment bank and is lucky enough to be able to code them too (usually manager manage and lose out on hands on work). He's lectured round the world on similar topics and is highly thought of by Bill Gates. So yes, if he reckons some Minecraft coders are up there with the top Java coders in the world I believe him. He also wanted to run their US trading system on PS4 boxes as they were significantly faster than the usual servers so he's always open to new ideas
My eldest hasn't just written a few mods, he's written a few thousand lines of code to build a website from scratch and code a database to run his server business. He now knows a fair bit about basic relational databases now too. Minecraft is a start, that's all - and a very visual one which can be hugely helpful and often the key for ASD kids. Being really involved, going in deep is a catalyst, not necessarily something parens should fear. The needing to do something prompts action. It's a way of making a connection. My two boys with ASD have to NEED something to act on good intentions. So they needed to love something enough to get involved, to want to do more, and to NEED to move forward.
NickiFury there are several good routes in to coding, but it is honestly not something easily "taught". I learned HTML because I blog and wanted my Blog to improve, so i threw myself in at the deep end. Immersed myself in it
I don't limit screen time for my DC. DC1 (yr 4) has just come 3rd in an inter school coding competition. In the top 3 children out of over 20 schools years 4-6. We are very proud! I agree that demonising screen time can be unhelpful at the least
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