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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Little Alchemy Sweeps Through the LS

Fire + Air = Energy
Mud + Plant = Swamp
Energy + Swamp = Life
Earth + Life = Human
Human + Lightsaber = Jedi
Jedi + Swamp = YODA!!

In search of educational games that our students can safely play during their free time, I have wandered far and wide. And here's the thing. ALL games are educational. They all teach something. But the real question is, "What is it kids are learning?"

Well, Little Alchemy appeared on my radar when I noticed this cute purple app had been installed in Google Chrome on my home computer (by my wily 4th grader). "Mooooommm! [you know the one where 'Mom' suddenly becomes a two or three syllable word?] You said we could install free apps from the Chrome store...so I picked this one." She played around with it, I played around with it, I installed it on my school laptop, I sent the link to the Lower School science teacher to check it out, and then I sort of forgot about it.

Then it went viral.

By "viral" I mean I started noticing a lot of kids playing with it in the Lower School during recess, particularly 1st and 2nd graders.  Occasionally the kids all learn some cool new thing and suddenly it's everywhere. Other game sites come to mind, or the flight simulator in Google Earth, or when they figure out how to hide the dock/make the computer talk/reverse the display colors...they all have to try it. Recess in the LS multimedia room is where I learn all the hot things.  And the middle school computer lab during lunch.

Available in the Chrome Web Store
(also web-based, or a desktop app for PC)

Little Alchemy is one of those games, like most, that sucks you in and then you can't stop until you've found all the possible combinations.  You start with the four basic elements (water, fire, earth, and air) and start combining them together to see what you can make.  The science teacher and I talked about how the first few combinations of elements were pretty neat, and even kind of scientific (earth + water = mud), but then as you create more and more elements, it gets a little sketchy on the science (wolf + human = werewolf). In addition, there are combinations that capture the kids' interest and spread like wildfire much more quickly than others (gunpowder, bullet, vampire, unicorn, etc), and there are a few elements that I know they'll eventually find, but maybe won't totally understand (alcohol + human = drunk).

NEVERTHELESS....

I have noticed an entirely separate set of skills that the kids are picking up while playing this game at recess. They are collaborating to share learned information. They are making hypotheses about what they can possibly create. They test these hypotheses. They are problem solving when combinations don't yield the results they expect. They are remarkably good at REMEMBERING how to create an astonishing number of elements. And let's be honest, they are in competition to see who can figure out the most. Now, there is no shortage of "cheat codes" available to help one accomplish this task. (I myself have just achieved 349/350 by using a variety of web "helpers," and that last elusive element is driving me absolutely bonkers!) But even if you reset and start over multiple times, the challenge remains fun and engaging, and there is an excited buzz in the room as the kids work, share, and show off how much they have accomplished. Sometimes, if I play in the room with them, we start making up our own combinations that we think SHOULD work, and perhaps we'll propose to the Little Alchemy folks. What I notice more than anything is the overall atmosphere of collaboration that exists when a group of students is playing together. "How do you make energy?" and "How'd you get hurricane?" fly around the room, with one or more helpers jumping up from their seat to show a fellow 'alchemist' the what for.
Real science? Medieval History? 


Is it fun? Yes. Is it scientifically accurate? Not so much. But the name of the game isn't Little Chemistry...it's Little Alchemy. And it has sure captured the interest and imagination of our kids. Obviously, they are not "learning" to throw cows in the ocean to see what happens (sea + cow = manatee).  But this game, and most others, reinforce many skills we want our students to have. According to Peggy Sheehy, as cited in the article linked below, “Gaming is almost like the scientific method. You get your quest, you form a hypothesis, you try it out, you encounter challenges and you draw conclusions.” In gaming, failure is expected, but in this realm kids usually don't give up, call it quits, and say "I can't do it." They try again. And again and again and again.  What can teachers learn from video games?

World of Warcraft in the Classroom