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Children’s Development and the Use of Technology
Simon Widdowson, Computing Coordinator, Porchester Junior School, Nottingham.
I have been a subject coordinator for Computing, teaching pupils between the ages of 7 and 11, for almost 25 years.
Throughout the past quarter of a century I’ve seen ideas come and ideas go. I’ve ‘played’ with new technologies (ranging from Podcasting to videogames, movie making with Greenscreen effects to Drones and more) in an effort to find an educational use for them, and incorporated many into my lessons that have a curriculum benefit. The most recent technology that I’ve used within my classroom has been the Beasts of Balance app enhanced game, from Sensible Object.
When I first received my copy of the game at home and unpacked it, downloaded the app, set it up and tried it out I will be honest and thought that if I took it into my classroom it would be a wet play treat. A unique, if slightly expensive, game for my class to play.
However, during the first few plays of the game with my family, my thoughts began changing because I could see how it could be used in an educational context. I was beginning to see how the digital app based board game could be used to help with children’s development. I had an idea that I could justify using it as ‘wet play’ item (an activity that the pupils could use when they were unable to go outside and play during a rainy day) but one with an educational slant that could be used to develop three specific areas of children’s development:
- Physical skills
- Mental skills
- Social skills
When I was at school there were lots of opportunities to develop fine motor control skills through activities such as the careful cutting out of shapes of coloured gummed paper that would be licked and then stuck onto a sheet of card to create an artistic masterpiece, or the threading of incredibly small beads onto a piece of cotton to make repeating patterns of shapes and colours.
Unfortunately though these life skills are being pushed to the side as teachers struggle to find the time to teach them whilst the demands on them to improve pupils English and Maths skills increases.
And at home it can be just as bad. Whereas I developed fine motor skills by building a Mecanno set using the fiddly metal shapes with screws and nuts that were so small once dropped they’d never be seen ever again, or trying to build a miniature Airfix model aircraft without covering myself in glue and transfers; many of the pupils in my class will tell me their after school entertainment involves no fine motor development as they are either poking a tablet screen as they write messages on social media, hammering on a joypad as they take part in a combat mission on a Playstation, or else staring at YouTube video after YouTube video.
This is why my ‘wet play’ cupboard contains games and activities such as K’nex, Jenga and draughts. Games where the children will need to be dextrous in order to be successful.
Games that will help them to develop their fine motor skills. Games that require them to think strategically to be successful.
“Beasts of Balance fits into my games cupboard philosophy perfectly.”
Take a careful look at the pieces in the game, and you’ll notice the subtle way they are shaped. It’s not easy to stack a pink icosahedron ‘air and air’ element on the beak of a Toucan Beast, for example. The Toucan has a habit of tipping over.
The swirling end of an orange fire element looks beautiful, but is a nightmare to balance anything on top of it, and so the game requires very careful, very steady placing of the Beasts, artefacts and elements to keep everything in balance.
So, when I introduced the activity to the class, the first few games played in class were very quick games as pupils were [almost] slamming one element on top of another. It was only through practise, and improvement in their fine motor control and spatial awareness that stacks began to grow in size and complexity.
Some of the shapes within the game just do not want to be stacked. The ‘miracle of distraction’ for example is the most unfriendly, unbalanced, awkward game piece you’ll ever encounter. It’s first few stacking attempts proved disastrous for the pupils, but as their hands became steadier, and as movements became smoother they began to have success incorporating it into their stacks. The more they played, the more their fine motor skills developed and improved.
One of the buzz phrases at the moment in education is “Growth Mindset”. The understanding that when faced with a problem, by putting in extra time and effort, by trying a different approach, by remaining resilient and not giving in, improvement and higher achievement is possible.
Playing this game offers many opportunities for the pupils to develop their growth mindset approach.
Early games played will often see items chosen at random and quickly stacked. The result of this can be low scores, short stacks and (quite often) frustration. But then the resilience and growth mindset attitude kicks in, and pupil begin to develop strategies to increase the score.
Instead of stacking lots of the Beasts, they try beginning with one or two Beasts, crossbreed them by adding a cross artefact (to increase points), then migrate them by stacking migrate artefact (again, increasing points) on top of the cross artefact, then migrate them again and again.
Pupils also begin to see the correlation between the element colour, and location of the beasts (air / sea / land) and can see that by using specific elements at certain times they can keep Beasts alive, and therefore increase their score.
Interestingly during some games I observed whilst a group of children were stacking on the plinth a lone child, or a pair of children, would appear to be ‘playing’ to the side – making small stacks. But this wasn’t playing, this was play testing ideas to help with the main game. This is how they discovered that a cross artefact placed on the top of a Beast could be used like a see-saw with elements balanced either side of it. It is also how groups of children discovered that positioning of elements could allow cross and migrate artefacts to stick out from the stack and provide fresh locations for future placing of elements.
Aside from the thinking about the physical positioning of the elements, Beasts and artefacts, the interaction on the app can also provide mental stimulation.
Try crossing a shark with a toucan and you’ll either create a ‘Drizzeflap’ or a ‘Sharacari’. How is that possible? Surely it would be the same crossbreed? It is only when pupils pause, reflect and think about what they’ve done and look carefully at the app that they begin to see the complexities of crossbreeding. They eventually notice that it is dependent on the position of the in app firefly when the cross artefact is scanned; if they scan the cross whilst the firefly is hovering over the Shark, the result will be a ‘Drizzleflap’. However, if they scan the cross whilst the firefly is hovering over the Toucan then they create a completely different crossbreed.
Suddenly, children aren’t playing the game to get a high score, they now play to see how many new Beasts they can discover through different combinations of crossbreeds and migrations. It’s at this point that you might think about introducing the skill of logical thinking, and get them to write down all the combinations they can think of and then mark them off as they are tried and tested. The resulting new Beasts can be recorded in a personal jotter that they then can use to compare with other pupils.)
As I’ve only got a single copy of the game, and the school budget is getting tighter and tighter, it is very unlikely that I could persuade the office manager to purchase several more copies so the only way we can play it is to take it in turns, table by table, in groups of 5 or 6 pupils.
For the group that is stacking, there is the initial free-for-all where everyone grabs an item and wants to scan it to use it.
It’s a bit like watching a lunchtime football match where everyone playing initially chases after the ball in one big writhing mass of people, before they settle into positions and develop a strategy.
A stacking group soon begins to realise though that the only way they are going to be successful is to take it turns, so that everyone gets to take part.
A problem however, is the need for a tablet or phone to be able to use this successfully in the classroom. Although we have several tablets in school, I have downloaded the accompanying app onto my own tablet, because memory space is tight on the curriculum tablets and I cannot justify taking up much needed space with a “game”. If in the future the app could be converted to work on laptops then this would be a very welcome move.
But what about a strategy?
Once a group has sorted out an order of play, they start to add elements, Beasts and artefacts fairly randomly. For example, a Beast might be placed on the plinth, and then a cross might be added. The pupils are surprised that nothing happens, until they realise that because there was only one Beast to cross it could not do anything. And at this point, a collaborative development occurs. After each item is placed on the plinth, a discussion takes place. The group begins to talk to each other about what to do next.
- Should another Beast be added?
- Should a cross be used because there are two or more Beasts in use?
- Could a Beast be migrated to boost points?
The children are verbally doing what they sit and do silently when they take out another wet play favourite; the draughts board. They start to look at what is in front of them, and they begin to plan ahead two, three, four moves thinking about how to boost points and keep their Beasts alive in the app.
Collaboration also becomes key when that unfriendly, unbalanced, awkward game piece the ‘miracle of distraction’ is added to the game. Whilst it might be considered hard enough just to manage to get it to rest – securely – in a stack, once it has been added to the game it likes to throw up challenges on the app screen to put the player off. It can be almost impossible to try and stack additional pieces and concentrate on the plinth, whilst also looking at the app and tapping every full moon that appears, or pressing down on the sun whilst placing the next piece. As its name suggests, it’s just a complete distraction from the concentration needed to stack.
So, how does a group of children get around this aptly named element? They work together, and one member of the group keeps an eye on the app screen, and makes sure any actions are completed without the need for the stacker to become distracted. That way, bonus points can be earned, the stacking can be focused on and a high score can be achieved.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, I’ve used this mainly with my pupils during ‘wet plays’ and those long ‘wet lunchtimes’. As a game, it is quite hard to justify dedicating a session of the school day to the game. However, once the children have the idea of the game, and they know how it works, it is possible to teach some aspects of the science curriculum with reference to it (in particular Habitats and Environments), as well as using it as a basis for creative English writing. With a little bit of creative thinking, it can be used in maths too (using the stars value of each Beast to teach an introduction to algebra could be fun).
If you’re an educator who’s interested in bringing Beasts of Balance into your teaching, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll give you a discount!