Volume 7 Number 2 - Spring 1999

Computer Games for Kids, by Kids

by Michael Tempel and Hope Chafiian

Click here to download a PDF version of this article.

Kate was working on a computer game. Dogs were running, birds were flying, messages were popping up, questions were being asked, and music was playing. She wasn't just playing the game. She wrote it. It was January and she wasn't scheduled to take computer until April, but she had learned what she needed to know from friends who had already taken the course.

A group of students corner their teacher in the stairwell to tell her about a bug in their program. Another wants to know why the timer isn't working in her program.

Four students are grouped around a computer watching intently as a fifth tries to maneuver a fast-moving turtle through a winding maze. His fingers move rapidly around the arrow keys as he tries to avoid going into the wall. He fails and is sent back to the beginning of the maze. One boy in the group is quite pleased. He is the author of the program and his creation has remained undefeated.

These students are thinking a great deal about what they are doing. They are involved. Educators have long taken advantage of children's passion for games, and especially for computer games. The usual approach is to overlay some educational content onto a familiar game format. To reach the next level you must answer a question about history or calculate a sum.

We don't ask our students to design games that focus on a school subject. They choose what the games are about so the objective is more likely be to conquering space aliens or getting a date than solving a math problem or getting to the West Coast.

We follow in the tradition of Idit Harel1 and Yasmin Kafai2 of the MIT Media Lab, recognizing that more profound learning comes from designing and building the games than from being on the receiving end.

The Settings

Ask the mermaids for advice. They can help you find your way around Stephanie's adventure game.

We have been working with students on computer game projects for several years, at The Spence School, a K-12 independent school for girls, and at Computer School II, an alternative public middle school, both in New York City. We have also shared our work with other teachers in workshops on game programming and as part of the annual Logo Summer Institutes sponsored by the Logo Foundation.

By the fifth grade, Spence students are old pros at Logo. They have been using MicroWorlds since kindergarten and have a variety of projects saved in their accounts on the school's network. Spence students know turtle geometry well and have used it to explore concepts of angles, area, perimeter, polygons and fractions. They have generated probability outcomes and have developed games around probability. They have programmed geometric faces, animations and turtle races. They have used MicroWorlds for creating multimedia reports, importing graphics from the Internet, digital cameras and scanners.

At Spence the fifth grade computer class, which meets Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons in double periods for one third of the year, is one of a series of classes including dance, drama, and writing workshop that provide varied environments and tools to foster students' self-expression.

Computer School II opened in September 1996 with 45 students in 6th and 7th grades. It expanded the following year to include an 8th grade and approached its target enrollment of 90 to 95 students. We began with 25 networked computers in one room. By the middle of the 1997 - 1998 school year there were 55 computers on the network with at least four machines in each classroom in addition to those in the computer room. Internet access was limited to one computer using an unreliable dial-up connection.

All students and staff members had accounts on the file server, and could access their work from anywhere in the school. This server also allowed us to set up a "Public Folder" that everyone could look at and copy files from. This shared area was important for the game project because we could put starters and samples there to introduce new ideas and techniques. The Public Folder also provided an exhibit area for finished work.

Students had four computer periods per week. The computer room was also full during lunch periods and many students stayed for two hours or more after school. Computers were used in conjunction with most subjects, but the dominant activity during computer classes was the game project.

At Spence and at Computer School II the computer classes develop into active collaborative design studios. Most students are quite willing to help each other, although some form groups that harbor secrets. Since the students are motivated to improve their games, there is a drive to learn new skills and acquire information. It's a pleasure to have them gobble up new ideas and techniques. Whole class lessons are rarely needed or appropriate. We often teach something to one student knowing that it will be all over the class in short order. Or, we place a sample project or starter in the Public Folder on the network and students take it as they need it.

What We Want to Achieve

What are our students learning? There are basic language and math skills that are practiced and improved while building games. Instructions have to be clear. Calculations of distance and angle are needed to lay out a game and move characters around.They are learning to plan and organize a large project and to appreciate another's point of view, that of the person playing the game. They are learning programming and the important skill of debugging.

Can you maneuver around the teachers in Elizabeth's maze game?

As teachers we have our criteria for judging our students' work. But what drives them most to high achievement is the judgment of their peers. Games should be complicated and difficult, but fair and possible. It should be clear what the goal is and what you have to do to maneuver your characters. Games should be clever, tricky, and funny. They should be aesthetically pleasing. And they should be fun.

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1 Harel, Idit, Children Designers, Ablex, Norwood, NJ, 1991

2 Kafai, Yasmin, Minds in Play, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 1995

Michael Tempel is President of the Logo Foundation. He taught at Computer School II from 1996 to 1998. He may be contacted at:

Logo Foundation
250 West 85th Street
New York NY 10024
phone 212 579 8028
fax 212 579 8013


Hope Chafiian is Director of Technology and Curriculum at The Spence School. She May be contacted at:

The Spence School
22 East 91st Street
New York NY 10128
phone 212 289 5940