Worried Minecraft Is Turning Your Kid Into a Zombie? You Shouldn’t

When we talk about being in “the zone” or a state of flow, we tend to think of it in terms of athletes or adults and the workplace. But kids are easily engrossed as well, and when it comes to digital diversions the proliferation of sandbox games encourages that sense of losing track of time. Sandbox games are less like video games and more like a digital mash-up of traditional toys like Colorforms, Lincoln Logs, Little People and LEGO. The most popular of such titles is Minecraft, but there are an ever-growing number of options for kids and adults of all ages and skill levels.

Lately parents, developmental experts and educators are finding good reasons to occasionally suspend their regular rules about screen time as it applies to TV and video games, when kids are benefitting from being in a state of flow while crafting a realm or creature straight out of their imaginations.

Current thinking suggests that for both adults and children being in a state of flow is conducive to learning and creativity. Flow is that ephemeral endless moment when a book holds you captive, or you start work on a project at 9 a.m. and look up startled to find it’s after 5 p.m., you forgot to eat lunch and you’ve done way more than you thought possible in one day. It’s only when we lose ourselves in the trivial or passive that flow is unproductive. When the right diversion commands all our attention there are benefits.

I’m not suggesting that every time your child wants to jump into an immersive imaginary world in two or three dimensions that they be encouraged to do so at the expense of regular routine or other forms of learning and play.

I do suggest, however, that if you notice that your kid is particularly absorbed, being flexible to allow her thoughts and energy to reach their natural conclusion can yield unexpected benefits including better problem solving skills and increased ability to work toward complex goals. Sandbox games also appeal to creative adults as much as to kids. The time when one captivates your kid is an ideal opportunity to not just supervise screen time, but to join your child in their rich fantasy landscapes.

“There are both pros and cons with kids becoming engrossed in these games, but I believe at this point the benefits in most cases outnumber the drawbacks,” said Brad Spirrison, managing editor of Appolicious and appoLearning. “For a game like Minecraft in particular, the teachers I work with at appoLearning cite the spatial reasoning and critical-thinking skills that can be developed and refined while creating new worlds.”

The next time your kid seems to be staring at a screen for too long, take a quick peek at both what they are doing and what state of mind he’s in. If you think he’s in a creative positive  “zone” it might be a good idea for you to let him go with the flow.

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Loading My Kid’s iPhone for Sleepaway Camp

Sleepaway camp can be a difficult adjustment, so I’d like to share some specific ways I used an old iPhone without cellular connectivity to ease my introverted son’s transition. I loaded it with a variety of both what I hoped would be social icebreakers and what I was confident would be useful soothers of frayed nerves.

Social Buffers

  • Games

I allowed select video games ensuring he had a mix of popular titles at which he is very good but balanced those with digitized board and card games, especially pass-and-play titles like STRATEGERY.

I also made sure he had games that were hot or going to be, but that were not necessarily up his alley, so that other kids would have fun when they got a turn with the iPhone. That was the point — to begin with anyway. I wanted the iPhone to act as a metaphoric hot spot that drew console-and-cable-starved kids like a magnet.

  • Playlists

I also put together some music playlists for my son. I included songs I know he has always loved, family favorites and songs he’d picked on his own, but my son — being my son — didn’t have a single chart topper in his library. For headphone time his music was great, but I also went to a music streaming service that allows offline saving (Slacker Radio Premium is a great choice for this because once cached offline the playlists stay functional for a long time without needing refreshing). I downloaded and saved playlists of summer hits from pop, hip-hop and other genres neither he nor I would normally listen to but a lot of kids his age and a bit older would likely be listening to.

Geek Gear

That was the extent to which I saw the iPhone as a social buffer, but I was also aware that I could arm him with a battalion of geek gear and he would still be who he is — a kid who is fun and funny, creative and enjoyable to be with, but a kid who shies away from big groups, doesn’t like to participate in many core camp activities, and feels an overwhelming need for solitude after a day or more of nonstop social stimulation.

For that I used smartphone features that are available for almost all mobile platforms.

  • Photos

I used the photo album and loaded it up with pictures of home, family, pets, and even pictures of his room and his “stuff.”

  • Relaxation apps

Then I went to the app store and downloaded a couple of relaxation apps — one we used regularly to practice Pranayama (an Eastern breathing technique that eases stress and anxiety and promotes mental and physical health) — and an app that allows you to combine different ambient sounds like rain, a heart beat, a crackling fire or any other white noise, along with loops of soothing music to help him get to sleep or just decompress.

  • Notes for messages

I used the native Notes app to write him a bunch of messages. I wrote some generic messages just telling him how much I love and miss him, and telling him how proud he makes me. I also included notes for specific occasions and situations —  one I titled “Read me on the worst day ever” and another “Read me on the best day ever” knowing he’d have several of both.

The key here was keeping the notes vague enough to fit any occasion yet specific enough so that he felt like I was speaking to him about something he is actively struggling with or celebrating. For example, one small Post-It-style note I left was simply “Remember, don’t judge your insides by other people’s outsides” to remind him there were other homesick kids besides him, some of whom just hid it better.

  • Voice Memo

I also made use of the Voice Memo feature, and at summer’s end my son told me that’s what helped him most. I owe my inspiration here to my late father. He used to make up these wonderful bedtime stories for my sister and me but he also traveled a lot for business. I don’t know exactly when he started doing it, but at some point he got into the habit of plugging a clunky old-school mic that screeched feedback as often as it recorded voices into his console-stereo and popping a shiny new cassette into the deck. Each night that he was away my sister and I would listen to that night’s installment.

He passed away shortly thereafter, but we still have copies of him not just telling us bedtime stories, but also messages just for us; for each night he was to be absent he would record something like “Today is Wednesday, and Lisa, I know you had a piano lesson so I hope it went well. Kiss your mom and sister for me.” I don’t have to tell you how those tapes became posthumous treasure, but long before that we loved having his voice with us when we were apart for even a few days.

I’m not a storyteller, but as you’ve likely noticed I’m a wordy girl, so I riffed on my father’s theme while looking at the camp calendar. If I knew something was going to happen like a canoe trip or theme day, I’d label a voice memo encouraging him to participate or asking him how it went. I made him voice recordings encouraging him to tough it out for homesick days, comforting him for hurt feelings and hurt body parts, and celebrating different types of successes.

Another year

As we head into our fourth year at the same camp my son’s expectations are aligned with the experience he’s going to have for worse and very much for better. His iPhone is still something he’s glad to have, but as he acclimates more each year he needs it — and my intervention — less and less.

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Not Unplugged at Camp: My Kid Took an iPhone to Sleepaway Camp, and Here’s Why

My son, who will be entering sixth grade this fall, is heading off to his fourth summer at sleepaway camp. For the last few years, he’s been attending three-week sessions at a camp in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, nestled into an idyllic little French-Canadian village. While he’s now a seasoned veteran eager to offer tips to new campers, when he went for the first summer I anticipated some hiccups.

It was the summer before my son’s ninth birthday when we decided to give sleepaway camp a try. Although he was content with hanging at our local pool for the summer, I wanted him to also have some structured recreation and a more social environment, as our suburb tends to be semi-abandoned during the summer months.

While convincing him with slideshows and YouTube videos of broadly smiling kids sporting tans despite layers of sunblock and rashguards, skimming behind speeding motor boats during “tubing,” learning to drive golf carts, and engaged in costumed theme days was easy, equipping him with the social skills he’d need to navigate this still-foreign environment wasn’t going to be so simple.

The challenges of an introverted kid

Be it nature or nurture, like both his parents my son is an introvert — quick with a smile and eager to make friends, but not altogether adept at it. His interests don’t run to “traditional” boy activities such that are venerated in suburbia and summer camps across the continent like soccer, hockey on a floor or ice rink, or, well, any organized sport really. He’d as soon play video games or make his own video in furtherance of his lifelong ambition to become a movie director and video game commentator.

Like his mom and his dad, my son is a dyed-in-the-wool geek — and we’re all proud of it. He has favored Doctor Who (a show he discovered with no parental prompting) to whatever airs on either regular or kid-centric TV since he’s been old enough to navigate Netflix, which is a skill one gleans early in my home; he would just as soon float away dreaming of new zombie-movie plots than participate in any swim race — even if swimming is his self-proclaimed favorite activity.

Like his mom and his dad, my son is a dyed-in-the-wool geek — and we’re all proud of it.

Tech as part of the solution

When selling the notion of camp I may have had time-warping goggles on, but when I thought back to my own experiences at similar camps at my son’s age and younger I knew I’d had a rough time adjusting. Year after year I’d attend for almost a full eight weeks — and reliably earn “most improved” camper at the awards dinner. Before you’re overly impressed note that depending on the year and camp that sometimes meant a momentous a climb from screaming and crying every day to only doing so twice a week.

But since everyone remarks on how much like me my son is, I tried to think about what would have helped way back in the 1970s when I was facing the same social hurdles, and use my experience and his strengths to help him have the best possible experience in this new millennium. I even knew tech was going to be part of the solution, but exactly what sort of tech, or even how to prepare him wasn’t as simple as sending him off with a Nintendo DS.

Camp’s flexibility with tech

First I have to credit the camp for being extraordinarily flexible, and its current director is also pretty tech savvy — enough that I have come to consider him a “Facebook friend.” I shared my concerns with him and inquired as to the camp’s policy regarding anything digital. He had already sussed out what I did for a living (since spamming those same Facebook friends is how I’ve acquired a quarter of my readership!) so I don’t think he was surprised when I asked if I could send my son with an iSomething.

In this case the camp’s policy was clear and predetermined, but before you use my story as a leaping off point for prepping your kid for camp, make sure you know your camp’s policy on same. For my son’s camp, iPads are verboten for campers as are iPhones or any smartphone with cellular connectivity. But an iPod touch was OK as long as I understood the odds of it returning home in even passable condition were more remote than the camp’s location. I got the OK to send an old iPhone without a SIM card, which is essentially the same thing. I loaded it with all sorts of stuff and used the device as social collateral leveraged against his having fun — and it worked!

Eagerly anticipating camp

That said, while my iPhone tricks helped in many ways, they certainly aren’t responsible for the eager anticipation he already feels for this upcoming summer. That I owe to an incredible camp and human nature. With each passing summer, as he rises in rank and gets a slightly later lights-out time, he feels more connected to the camp and by now the camp’s administration is well acquainted with him and his somewhat neurotic, if well intended mum.

My son has built a love for the place that will grow as his social skills and prefrontal cortex do. What are now still temporary friends will make way to Facebook friends (and friends wherever kids hide on social media and in real life where parents aren’t lurking) and all too soon taking the subway or driving across town to see friends won’t be a hurdle either. I’m confident he’ll continue to attend for many summers to come because like his school and our neighborhood pool on good days — and even on bad ones — his camp has become a home away from home, as it ought to be.

Would you send your kid to camp with a mobile device? On Thursday, find out what the author loaded her son’s iPhone with to help him get through homesickness and social awkwardness. 

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Peek Into the Imaginary Play World of an Only Child

My son, now 11, has his playroom right above my office. The racket that breaks my concentration daily sounds like he invited friends over without my OK. You’d think by now I’d be used to it. My son spends most of his free playtime making what he calls “movies” with playsets of every sort, from Fisher-Price toddler garages to models painstakingly put together from boxes that say “ages 14+.”

His favorite toys aren’t the actual kits though. He loves the characters that go on to inhabit the world he makes with those sets as backdrops. He loves army men, action figures, Little People and any number of molded plastic miniature creatures be they human, animal or “other.”

When he has the chance to buy anything he wants he beelines equally to advanced Lego kits and Playmobil sets intended for younger kids. And when we get home he promptly discards almost everything except the figures. Those voices that startle me, that’s just my son giving speech to the various characters in his movies.

Characters akin to imaginary friends

The reason I don’t ask him to keep the voices down even when they do scare me right out of my chair is because I know the value of his intense imaginary play to his overall development. He’s an only child, and those characters are akin to imaginary friends.

I know the value of his intense imaginary play to his overall development.

Once pulled to reality from my own little world of writing, I often eavesdrop on his improvised scenarios and while many are just stories about superheroes, monsters and bad guys, I’ve more than once overheard him re-enacting a social situation from school or — I’m chastened to confess — even dramatizing an argument he’s overheard me having with his father. When I recognize the “plot,” I notice he alters his characters’ role, often saying things he likely wishes he had said at the time.

He uses simple toys, the kind that were just as readily available in the 1970s as they are today, to give himself something vital siblings usually provide — the push and pull of social dynamics; a rehearsal space for interactions with a larger scarier world. One in which he is not the center.

Self-prescribed play therapy

Can his toys replace a house full of squabbling siblings? Of course not. But the benefits of his self-prescribed play therapy are measurable. In second grade he had social and behavioral issues severe enough to warrant testing and intervention. He’s in fifth grade now, and he no longer needs help with those things. In fact he is currently his class student council representative, starring in the holiday play, and the only notes home are about pizza lunches and field trips.

I asked him which he preferred — his two or three-dimensional diversions. I was surprised when he empathically chose imaginary play over YouTube and his Wii. When I asked why, he put it too well to paraphrase so I’ll quote: “Mom, what would you prefer? To watch Mario or to actually be Mario?” Point taken.