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September 2010

From the National Center for Education Research (NCER)

Image from Possible Worlds

Learning While Playing Games

Can we create games that teach students academic content and are fun to play? This is a challenge that IES-funded researchers are working on.

A team at the Education Development Center (EDC) is developing Possible Worlds, an adventure-based game for use on the handheld Nintendo Dual Screen device. In one of the games, middle school science students will learn about the process of chemical change by engaging in a science fiction adventure game in which players maneuver a robot to explore a vast cave to find treasures and seek out the answer to a secret about who is living in the cave. To create energy for the robot to move and overcome obstacles in the cave, the player must use a photosynthesis-like process to break up the carbon dioxide and water in the cave to produce different substances, including food (glucose), fuel (methanol), and weaponry (tear gas)—all of which use the same three elements. Playing the game, along with teacher-directed instruction and classroom discussion, will provide students with a concrete and experience-based visualization of what is typically a difficult and abstract concept to learn—that states of matter are produced by chemical reactions that consist of re-grouping the same elements into different configurations. A second game being developed through this project focuses on genetics.

Researchers at the Center for Advanced Technology in Schools (CATS) are designing a series of computer games to help all students—and in particular, low-performing ones—learn algebra. Each game focuses on a particular algebraic topic (e.g., addition of fractions, solving expressions, rational numbers, inverse relations) and embeds learning in game play. For example, in Tlaloc's Book, players help Tlaloc overcome various obstacles (e.g., plateaus, trenches) to reach the goal using arithmetic to resize platforms. Playing this game is intended to help students overcome common misconceptions about the effects of multiplication and division (e.g., that multiplication always makes the resulting quantity larger than its original value).

For more information on the Possible Worlds project, see EDC is funded with a 5-year $9.2 million grant from IES.

For more information on CATS, see CATS is funded with a 5-year $9.8 million grant from IES.

IES-funded Study Finds that Preschoolers Benefit from More Teacher Interaction, Less Free Play

Hand reaching towards block

Preschoolers who spend most of their class day engaged in unstructured free play make smaller gains in early math and language skills when compared to peers who spend more time interacting with their teachers on a variety of other activities, according to a new study by the IES-funded National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education.

The study also found that low-income children in particular do better in a program that concentrates on individual learning, with more time spent on teacher-directed activities focused mostly on fine motor skills and early literacy.

"If early childhood education is to level the playing field by stimulating children's academic development, more quality instructional time spent with teachers and less free play time without teacher guidance may prepare children better for starting kindergarten," lead researcher Nina Chien said, in announcing the publication of the research in the recent issue of the academic journal Child Development.

The study was based on a secondary analysis of data gathered from 2,700 children enrolled in public prekindergarten programs in 11 states, more than half of whom are from low-income families. The researchers analyzed qualitative data of "snapshots" that used moment-by-moment observations to categorize children according to the types of settings in which they spent the bulk of their school day. Overall, children spent an average of 45 minutes of their 2.5 hour prekindergarten day in free play. In contrast, less than 8 minutes a day were devoted to literacy activities of reading, letter-sound recognition, and being read to.

This study builds on an emerging body of research that suggests the quality of a preschool experience can be addressed by focusing more on teacher interaction and less on the physical features and layout of the classroom—for example, the learning stations for dramatic play, scientific exploration, art and literacy. The findings suggest that while free play and exploration can contribute to children's overall development and learning, by itself, too much free play and exploration can weaken children's preparation for kindergarten, researchers say.

The National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education was created in 2006 with a 5-year, $11 million grant from the IES National Center for Education Research. It is based at the University of Virginia.