More Than Just Minecraft – Using Webkinz in Games Based Learning
Last week I gathered some of my Grade One students around the computer as part of our Media Literacy lesson when a few of them piped up to ask, “Are we going to go on Webkinz?” Considering that it was over a year since we had used it together, I was impressed that they remembered it and still wanted to use it.
Using video games in the classroom is not a particularly new phenomenon, and Minecraft isn’t the only commercial product borrowed by teachers for school use. Here at www.gamingedus.org, Minecraft is a big focus but it isn’t the only way to engage learners in interdisciplinary studies and inquiry. Today’s blog post is about my use of Webkinz.
As with many of my forays into Games Based Learning, I was inspired by my own children. Their indulgent grandmother bought them the toys in 2006, unaware that the stuffed animals also came with a code that allowed the owner to play online with a virtual version of their pet for a year. My son, daughter and I had a great time playing it together. I started my school Webkinz account in 2007.
I enjoyed using Webkinz with my students for many reasons. I appreciated that the students could choose what they wanted to do in the game. The activities they selected often linked well to curriculum expectations. I wrote about how one lesson incorporated language, math, health, the arts, and other learning skills on my own professional blog here: http://mondaymollymusings.blogspot.ca/2011/11/student-led-learning-in-kindergarten.html
I was so enthusiastic about what the students were thinking and doing around Webkinz that I compiled some of the Webkinz-related lesson plans I had written, articles I had collected, and blackline masters I had designed and offered some workshops to fellow teachers in 2009. It was at these sessions that I heard my first serious objections to what I was doing.
“Don’t you feel like you’re selling out? By using this toy, aren’t you just marketing it to the children, so they want to buy it?”
I reassured the teacher (or, at least I hope I adequately reassured the teacher) that critical thinking and economic/class equity was just as much a part of the lessons as the playing/exploring and language/math. My students knew (and are continually taught, so they also know today) that Webkinz is created by a company called Ganz, and Ganz tries very hard to get you to invest more in their company. The kindergarten students I see will shout “Ad! Ad!” when they see the pop-ups, and they realize that advertisements are not just the images on the sidebar marked “advertisement”, but are also part of the “click the floating object” games and the items to buy with eStore points or exclusive to a Deluxe membership. Ganz is not just the benevolent bringer of our entertainment, but a corporation that needs to be examined with clear eyes, even by the youngest users. I stress heavily to the kids that we do NOT need to buy individual Webkinz because sharing the school Webkinz allows us to practice our collaborative decision making skills. (It is also possible to play Webkinz for free without buying a stuffed toy, but there are limits to what you can access or play … another important media literacy lesson.)
I’ve been using Webkinz with my students for eight years and I have not had any complaints from parents or my administrators. We don’t spend all of our media literacy time glued to the computer screen, but it is one tool in our media literacy toolbox, and a favourite among the children. Based on what the Grade One students told me, it looks like I may have to reconsider keeping it as an exclusive for the kindergarten classes!