This summer we’re teaching a series of optional free camps at Computers4Kids. The goal is to provide a fun and engaging experience, but also introduce concepts that might pique the students’ interest. Last week I observed a phenomena that I had noticed before — a definite lack in students’ problem-solving skills. This wasn’t in an unfamiliar content area, but a simple game of 20 questions where the items were familiar animals, foods and objects. It was hard to watch the student stymied by the task. He wasn’t able to construct questions, even with prompts, that would lead to him guessing his hidden animal. He seemed frustrated and embarrassed, but other students lent him support and he was able to succeed eventually. This game that seemed so familiar to me and most of the students was clearly foreign to him.
Observing this interchange made me think about how important games are to children’s development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. How many hours of my childhood journeys were occupied with searching for objects that started with certain letters or fit into different categories, guessing a word, or out-spelling the driver? Thinking about strategy, getting tricky, and being clever were all skills that offered gratification and reward. Successful thinking was play and fun. It was valued.
Certainly many of these experiences can be duplicated on smartphones. There are plenty of free or cheap apps with guessing games built in, some lacking a few key components:
- An authentic feedback loop. It’s more gratifying to hear a peer or adult congratulate you for fresh thinking or more efficient guessing than canned computer feedback, no matter how intelligent the system is.
- Evolution of gameplay. When you’ve planned the same game mile after mile, you begin to shift the rules and boundaries to keep the gameplay challenging and new. The negotiation of the rules to keep play fun, challenging, or to make it appropriate for different levels of players is a critical skill for young players.
- Reading the opponent. When people play games against one another, they observe the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s play. Predicting a player’s next steps is often crucial in competitive games. Being able to parse the psychology of a colleague is a valued skilled in real life.
- Spontaneity. Humans almost always bring a sense of unpredictability to gameplay. While a computer algorithm can be analyzed and predicted, humans tend to ignore logical steps and respond “irrationally”; sometimes a perceived “losing” move is a strategically savvy one. Many computer programs aren’t equipped to play the long game.
Certainly I don’t disdain computer games and apps completely. I can’t stop playing a Tetris clone on my phone, but I see that games still need to come out of the digital sphere and into our human one. Sitting in the backseat affixed to the smartphone is no substitute for playing a game of I Spy out the window. Just because an activity is lo-fi, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.