First Time Around the Block – Bringing Minecraft to Elementary Students

The anticipation was palpable. Rumours had been circulating among the 2nd grade students that something new was coming to their classroom. Something big. I was being accosted on a daily basis and subjected to a torrent of questions. Is it true? Are we really going to be using it in our classroom? Can we make whatever we want? Can we work with our friends to make something together? The rumours were true. Minecraft: Education Edition was making an appearance in our 2nd grade curriculum in a big way. Previously, I had exposed a small number of our young learners to the Education Edition through an open-ended after school club. Starting small, and without the limitations of classroom pacing guides and bell schedules, we were free to explore what Minecraft could bring to our learning experience. It was also the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about managing a group excited 2nd grade students functioning in their element, and to discover and plan for any potential pitfalls. So much of what I'd seen of Minecraft to this point involved older students. I'd seen 6th grade students building a scale model of their own school. I'd read about high school students re-enacting the plight of refugees as they searched for a new life in safer lands. What were my 2nd graders going to be capable of? I'd been playing Minecraft since its inception; but this was surely going to be different. The after-school club went on to be an outstanding success, and the following classroom integration efforts went smoothly enough that we'll be using Minecraft in social studies again this year. I've learned a lot from those experiences and have witnessed enough to know that using Minecraft in the classroom with our young learners is a worthy endeavour. Even if you work with older students, hopefully the lessons I'm sharing with you now will help you on your own Minecraft: Education Edition journey. So, grab your pickaxe, don your armour and read on to discover five lessons learned from my first time around the block with young learners.

Getting started… just let them try it!
 I quickly discovered that starting with something big and involved was not the way to go. Time is a precious commodity in the classroom. I was eager to ensure that the teachers saw the potential Minecraft had to offer, and that it was much more than a pointless game that all their students seem to play at home. I also wanted the students to get maximum benefit and excitement from the experience. In my eagerness, I overextended myself and the experience. From this I learned to start with simple, open-ended requirements for initial experiences with Minecraft. Providing some time for the students to explore the game, test its limits, test the rules we'd set ourselves, and adjust to using a mouse and keyboard were crucial for success. Don't run before you can walk! Start small - let the students build and see what they are capable of!

Unintentional digital citizenship was a welcome surprise! I'd learned from the experiences of other educators that starting out with a big list of rules was not a good idea. There are many ways that students can cause mischief in the world of Minecraft, and many students came to the experience fully versed in ways of causing havoc and upset. We began our experiences with one simple rule. If you wouldn't do it in the real world, you probably shouldn't do it in our digital world - a variation of the golden rule. We weren't talking about putting limits on creativity. If they want to build a 100-block tower house with a waterfall and rooftop cow farm - be my guest! We were talking about expected behaviors in the social context. Many of our 2nd graders were more than capable of producing the most creative designs but were not well prepared to deal with the subtle social aspects of working in a world together. One problem that appeared time and time again across all seven classrooms - what to do when an unexpected visitor enters your home. Every class came to the same conclusion; in the real world, you would usually ask permission before entering someone else's home. The students agreed to always ask permission before satisfying their own curiosity about what was inside their classmate's homes. I also promised to wrap up each session with a short tour of the progress made that day using the classroom projector so all could see. Allowing the students to create authentic rules as problems arose led to some unintentional yet profound digital citizenship concepts being explored, and ultimately made the Minecraft experience a safe and conflict-free experience (see our community under development).  

The students crave an audience for their work With so much creativity on display for all to see, competition was high to build structures that would be the envy of the class. As part of our social studies curriculum, the students were building a community that provided goods and services. Their stores were competing for attention, which led to some eye-catching designs. The students would plead for time to explore what everyone else was building and be able to share what they had created. Good ideas caught on and spread like wildfire. The students wanted to share their world beyond the confines of their own classroom. Many asked if we could make videos of their world to share on YouTube. So many students have learned the finer points of Minecraft design by watching their favorite YouTubers craft and play, so this felt like a natural progression for them. This year, I plan to make video creation a prime component of my after school club. The potential for making how-tos, stories, and more is truly exciting! In this video you can see the students experiencing an economic system that involved the production and consumption of goods and services. Along the way they learned to be good digital citizens in a creative, immersive, and engaging environment.

The "Tablet Generation" needed a helping hand Our 2nd grade students have never known a world without touch screen devices. While I am fortunate enough to work in a school district that provides every student with an iPad, we were using our laptop lab to create our Minecraft worlds. This required the students to master using a mouse in combination with the keyboard. For many of these young learners, as well as some of the teachers, this was no small feat. I equated it to rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Keeping the initial experience simple allowed those who were new to mice and keyboards time to adjust and build their hand-eye coordination. After an hour or so, every student was able to move and build with ease. Providing each student with a keyboard map removed the need to memorize all of the keyboard shortcuts right away. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the students helping each other with learning how to move around in Minecraft and manipulate the world around them. Additionally, this created a unique opportunity for teachers to learn alongside their students.

The potential for curriculum connection may just blow your mind! After starting small, we moved quickly onto a variety of experiences. I tried some survival mode projects in my after-school club - exploring the world and "hunting" for biomes during Earth Day was a big hit. We enjoyed creating pixel art characters during our "Explore the Arts" celebration. We built bar graphs and pictographs in our math world and settled the New World during Thanksgiving with our Pilgrim simulation (see it in action). We composed songs with note blocks and built bizarre contraptions with redstone. I learned that the students became fully immersed in all of these experiences and enjoy the open-ended simulations just as much as the shorter, more focused assignments. What's next? I'd love our students to create a world that reflects multiple aspects of their curriculum. I want that world to endure long after they leave our school, with each successive group of students leaving their mark on the community. Being able to see how a community changes over time can be bought to life with Minecraft. I predict that video creation will become a cornerstone of our experience, and I hope to see our students attempt some form of collaboration project with a school outside of our own district. With so much potential, I'm truly excited for the future of Minecraft: Education Edition in our school! __ Simon Vasey (@vasey103) is an Instructional Technology Coach from Laura B. Sprague School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. He works with students and teachers in Early Childhood through 2nd grade. As well as Minecraft, he enjoys sharing his passion for coding and robotics with teacher and students.