If you have computer-savvy kids at home, odds are they play Minecraft—or know someone who does.

Now owned by Microsoft, the Swedish indie program has become one of the biggest computer games of all time, with more than 70 million copies sold. In other words, if your kid has access to a computer, phone or tablet and isn’t playing Minecraft yet, it’s probably just a matter of time.

Parents may be surprised to find out that Minecraft can help teach kids about all sorts of things, from math and science to problem solving, collaboration and history. In fact, many teachers now embrace Minecraft as an important tool in the classroom.

What Is Minecraft?

If you’re unfamiliar with the basic concepts behind the Minecraft phenomenon, it’s hard to do it justice in a short article (How To Geek offers a 15-part introduction to Minecraft that just begins to scratch the surface).

Here’s a very simple explanation: players appear in a randomly generated land (map) where there are different landscapes (biomes), populated by friendly and unfriendly creatures (mobs). Players can dig (mine) and build (craft) with natural resources (blocks) to create simple items or astonishingly complex buildings and cities. Users can share their world with other players—locally on Wi-Fi or globally on servers (some servers are specifically for kids or families).

You can do anything you want, limited only by your imagination.

In Minecraft, there are no levels to pass or tasks to fulfil—instead, you can do anything you want, limited only by your imagination. This means some players just want to build castles (or recreate their actual homes), while others want to explore forests, oceans and caves (and, yes, some want to fight other players or the computer-controlled monsters.)

There are different ways to play Minecraft. Many kids find creative mode is an ideal fit, because it eliminates game threats like nighttime beasties, hazardous terrain and even hunger; instead, it just lets them explore or build—two activities kids have loved for millennia. But beyond this sense of fun (and the camaraderie of sharing adventures with friends online or in the real world), what do kids learn when they play Minecraft?

Unlimited Potential

Andrew Forgrave teaches grades three and four in Eastern Ontario. He’s been playing Minecraft for about four years—ever since his sons introduced him to it. He compares Minecraft to “unlimited Lego with unlimited friends.”

Now, his students research life in early Ontario or medieval times and share their learning by constructing annotated “virtual village museums” in Minecraft. They also study isometric drawings to re-create the game’s characters in art class.

“Once you understand what [Minecraft] is and how it works, the options are virtually unlimited. I liken Minecraft to a pencil—once you get the basic grip and put point to paper, what you create is influenced by your focus, your thoughts, the others you are working with,” explains Forgrave, who shares his experiences with other teachers at the annual Educational Computing Organization of Ontario conference and has attended numerous grassroots-organized #edCamps to talk about the game.

In June, Microsoft’s vice-president of worldwide education shared a list of how Minecraft is used in schools around the globe, including U.S. middle-schoolers who researched religious landmarks and rebuilt them block-by-virtual block and Scottish kids who learned about city planning and engineering by redesigning their hometown’s waterfront in practical ways.

Vickie Morgado, an elementary school teacher in the Greater Toronto Area, also uses Minecraft in her classes.

“In Grade three, teachers can have students build structures in [the] open world and communicate about them—there are lessons here about engineering and physics. I’ve even seen teachers ask students to demonstrate their understanding of the different levels of soil through the game,” she says.

She’s had students recreate pioneer villages and employ math skills to calculate the perimeter and volume of their buildings.

She’s had students recreate pioneer villages and employ math skills to calculate the perimeter and volume of their buildings. However, Morgado herself isn’t a Minecraft-devotee.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who really enjoys playing Minecraft, but I can…link it to the curriculum to engage students. If it helps them learn, then I embrace it,” she says. “I think more teachers want to do it, but sometimes they feel they have to know the game inside out. That is not the case. The kids know how to play it. We design the ideas and then take a co-learning stance.”

Minecraft As A Learning Tool

Despite positive responses from parents and other teachers, Forgrave is aware of concerns about excessive screen time, always-on mobile devices and the depersonalization of communication.

“As an educator, I am mindful of the need to balance all areas of learning for children. I have seen ‘gamified' technology activities for children that have a very limited effect, given the time invested. I try to be a mindful critic in looking at technologies and assessing their relative value.”

In other words, Minecraft is not replacing traditional classroom learning—it’s a fun tool that helps complement other teaching methods. Many parents whose kids play at home also find the game’s immersive nature means it is important to set boundaries over when (and for how long) their children play.

Learn More About Minecraft

To learn more about Minecraft, check out books like Visual Guide to Minecraft: Dig into Minecraft with This (Parent-Approved) Guide Full of Tips, Hints, and Projects! or visit a site like MineMum—it offers special FAQs for parents and tips for offline Minecraft-inspired activities.

For teachers looking for more, gamingEDUs.org provides workshops and hosts weekly play-and-learn events online.

The game is also now part of Hour of Code, a worldwide initiative that aims to teach kids computer programming. There are also camps and workshops across Canada. Many local libraries even offer Minecraft classes.

MinecraftEdu is a collaboration of educators and programmers who work with developers to offer schools discounted licenses to make Minecraft more affordable and accessible. The group offers a modified version of the game that allows teachers to control what kids can do, whether it’s special challenges or opportunities to create specific buildings or lands. Guided by teachers, the game can be tailored to reinforce more traditional lessons about math, English or computer programming.

Do you or your kids enjoy Minecraft? What do you think of its educational possibilities?

What Kids Learn When They Play Minecraft