Clive Thompson, the science and technology writer, recently wrote a piece in The New York Times, entitled, The Minecraft Generation. In the article, he sought to offer a cultural commentary on what could broadly be defined as how children are learning in the digital world. His use case? Minecraft, the computer game that has become a phenomenon amongst children throughout the world.
In the article, Thompson traces the origins of Minecraft back to philosophers like John Locke, as well as educators like Maria Montessori. He focuses on histories inherent fascination with the power of “building blocks” and how their simplicity helps children understand the often complex world. Not only does Thompson highlight how playing with blocks has become a mainstay in our conceptualization of early childhood education, he also discusses the applications today.
From Montessori to Minecraft, Thompson examines the thinking behind why certain systems of thought seem to have far reaching implications for how children learn. Why have building blocks, for instance, proven to be so timeless and instructive? Well, the big idea goes something like this: by utilizing concrete systems, ones that have easily identifiable patterns, children are able to discern and ultimately understand abstract concepts through experimentation. More basically, by playing with blocks, or other similarly open-ended activities, children come to develop a rather rich – dare we say richer – appreciation of the world.
“Children would start with simple blocks”, explains Thompson, “and build up to more complex patterns, then begin to see these patterns in the world around them.”
Through the lens of their constructions, and the interactions those creations have with their surroundings – how the blocks nestle together, or fall down with the force of gravity, or reach for the sky just so – children slowly develop an understanding of how abstract concepts make sense. They see the processes that lead to patterns and from there, anything becomes within reach.
Remember that old adage about the only way to truly understand something is to break it apart to see how it works? Well, this is about putting things together, from the start, to make connections, to try to make sense of how the world works. Children, especially at this age, don’t need to take things apart, they’re still learning to put them together.
What happens, then, at least conceptually, is that instead of trying to help children wrap their minds around a concept that seems entirely devoid of reality, Montessori offers children something tangible by which to make the association – something they can literally put their hands on. A philosophy, not of pie-in-the-sky, but of hands-in-the-dirt.
Upon reflection, how many times did we, as children, utter the hopeless phrase, “Why do I need to learn this? I’ll never need to use this in the real world?” Of course, this was often our justification for why we failed our physics exams or skipped our gym class. Why did this phrase become so readily adopted? Or rather, why did we so eagerly embrace the idea? One could easily suggest that it’s because the connections between the abstract and the concrete weren’t as tenuous as they could have been.
From the simple to the complex, or from the concrete to the abstract, or should we say from Montessori to Minecraft, children come to understand the world around them.
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