Each school day, I sit down with my four- and five-year-old students and ask them what’s new in their lives. For many students, it’s a challenge. They look around the room, notice that same pair of shoes they’ve been wearing for months and say, “My news is that I’m wearing these shoes today.” Or, they will tell me about Christmas presents in the middle of June, and birthday parties six months past. With a little bit of questioning, I can usually find something new in each student’s world, though it can be a challenge.

Then there are students–some of whom are very bright–who insist upon describing, at tedious length, their latest video game achievements. What stands out most to them is what they have done on Mom’s phone or Dad’s iPad. Granted, it is news of a sort, but my instinct is to cringe a bit. I wonder: what does it mean to have a brain so occupied with video games?

I want to be careful not to criticize video games too harshly. There is some evidence that television and movies are linked to childhood problems, but not video games. My speculation concerns not damage being done, but rather missed opportunities. What do we want young children to be thinking about as they go about their days? Angry Birds?

The conversation is complicated by a recent trend in education known as gamification, which introduces game-like characteristics to activities that generally are not thought of as games. Gamification can powerfully and positively affect a child’s participation in learning activities, because of course, games are fun. But how game-like do we want educational activities to be? Two-thirds learning and one-third game? One-third learning and two-thirds game?

In my classroom, I hesitate to use apps that are too game-like. They’re like candy. Once children have a taste, it’s hard to get them excited about healthier things like fruits and vegetables. So it goes with educational apps. A fun game-like app with minimal educational content might make the richer but less game-like apps seem like green beans. There certainly are apps that are game-like and also highly educational (strawberries?), but the games often get in the way of the lessons, or vice versa. If I allow game-like, content-lacking apps to dominate my classroom, I worry that I will find my students obsessing over games that teach relatively little, instead of devoting their minds to more valuable and enriching interests.

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