Using Video Games to Teach Children to Fail

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
– Thomas A. Edison

We’ve all probably made the connection on how important it is to fail. I recently read the book, Creativity Inc, written by Ed Catmull, and Amy Wallace. The book charts the rise of Pixar, specifically detailing their process of Creativity and success. One of the things that Ed Catmull, highlights throughout the book, is the importance in learning to ‘Fail Early, and Fail Fast’.

My boys increased interest in the iPad, has come about thanks to his discovery of Minecraft (going beyond YouTube Kids). Minecraft is a great game for Creativity, as it's sole goal is to create and make.
My boys increased interest in the iPad, has come about thanks to his discovery of Minecraft (going beyond YouTube Kids). Minecraft is a great game for Creativity, as it’s sole goal is to create and make.

As adults, I’m sure we all recognize that when we start something new, it’s probably going to take a few attempts before we get it right, particularly if the activity requires a set of skills that must be developed or learnt along the way. However, teaching this concept to a child can be difficult, particularly to the ones that are impatient and want to succeed on their first attempt. How do you explain to a five year old that they’re going to fail at first, and however upset they might become, they should keep trying (and keep failing) so that they can get better – they want to win, and WIN NOW!

See Also: Creativity Chit-Chat: A Parents Quick Guide to Creativity at Home

I’m not going to take a really deep dive into my feelings toward failure, and how students in our current system of schooling are not always given adequate opportunities to fail – neither am I going to talk too much about how we as parents, in our desire to ‘help’ our little ones along the way, often remove the opportunities for them to fail, because we want to see them constantly succeed. Instead, I’m going to talk about a mobile game called Mr. Jump.

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I think this is probably the first time that I’ve actually written about a mobile game, and that’s because I don’t find the time to play them often. However, my eldest has finally begun showing a greater interest in the iPad, and recently requested that I download Mr. Jump, after spending a day with his cousins.

Given his enthusiasm, I immediately made the purchase from the App Store, and we began playing. Oh my days – it was hard, and of course it immediately provoked annoying temper tantrums that made me want to delete the game immediately. But, then I realized that we can use video games to teach children to fail. One of the things that I noticed immediately about Mr. Jump, was that instead of losing a life after dying (failing), the screen displays the percentage of the level that the player has completed. This was fantastic, because it allowed me to show Lucas that he was making progress. As opposed to focusing on getting to the end of the level without dying, we were able to set goals, and the game assisted us with our goal setting by providing a line to indicate our best attempt. At first we just tried to get into the teens, then the twenties, and finally thirties. Each time we reached a new high I took the time to celebrate the success, and slowly the goal of our game shifted to beating our previous number, as opposed to getting to the end of the level (which is really hard!).

Mr. Jump, displays the percentage of the level completed. Allowing players to see their progress, and thus improvement.
Mr. Jump, displays the percentage of the level completed. Allowing players to see their progress, and thus improvement. It’s a minor detail that for me, has made all the difference.

In-between our attempts, we discussed the concept of failure, and I used our progress as an example to how we get better, and learn after each attempt. We even began to singing one of the verses from Zootopia after obtaining a new high number

‘Birds don’t just fly, they fall down and get up’ 

Slowly, but surely, Lucas was discovering that it’s ok to fail, so long as he picks himself back up, and tries again.

On writing this article, I find myself thinking this is an obvious thing to discover. After all, digital games are designed to give their players the opportunity to fail. It’s how players learn, and develop the necessary skills to overcome future challenges. I think this is referred to as ‘Game Flow’ within game theory classes.

Anyway, I’m going to take this experience into teaching Lucas, how to ride his bike – wish me luck on that one! If you haven’t see it, here’s the Zootopia song.

PS. The game’s great. I’ve been sneaking off to play it myself. Just got to level two yesterday!

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Introducing young children to Computer Science: 3 question interview with Professor Jeremy Sarachan


In June I was at the New Media Consortium Summer Conference, meeting great educators from around the world. During the Idea Lab (my favorite event of the conference), I stumbled across a strange table that had a banana (or at least I think it was a banana), attached to a wire that plugged into a computer. Yes – I knew what it was – the Makey Makey Kit, which is one of the more popular Electronic Invention Kits, which are proving to be a great way to introducing young children to computer science, by connecting everyday objects to simple programs. Jeremy Sarachan, who among other things has studied the use of ‘cool’ tech in education, shared his experience using these types of kits with middle school students, and I asked him to offer some advice to parents who might want to explore this device with their children outside the classroom.

What do you consider the value of introducing electronic or computer science starter kits (like Makey Makey) to young children?

For some kids, their highest level of creativity emerges in using these tools. Digital technologies often require kids to incorporate other skills—drawing, crafts, and writing—and so they find connections between various techniques. Technological tools [like Makey Makey] also appeals to kids by bringing together both artistic and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills and hopefully, will encourage adults to stop placing these skills/experiences at two ends of a spectrum, instead allowing kids to see how the various topics they are studying (including content from other disciplines) can be brought together. It also allows them to communicate their ideas and feelings in new ways, and gives them an outlet for expression.


Many parents might find electronics or computer science type activities intimidating, what advice can you offer to those with little knowledge in this area, but who want to introduce their children to these subjects?

Three things to consider.  

One, some kits are really quite easy–like the Makey Makey, and this provides parents an opportunity to get over some of their fears of technology. 

Second, one needs to trust their kids and allow them to experiment, and more importantly, let them lead the way in exploring and finding new technologies. Parents will often know less than their kids, and that’s okay. I had tried to introduce my daughter to block programming with both Scratch and Mindstorms and it didn’t take hold (and I didn’t push it). She found Blocksworld, and entirely taught herself–one day, she just showed me the coding she had done–I hadn’t even known she was doing it.

Three, if neither one or two works, multiple opportunities exist in many communities–perhaps at a local science museum or college–where your child can explore new technologies with other kids —and then let them teach you!

What type of starter activities do you recommend to parents who have recently purchased an electronics starter kit like Makey Makey?

Scratch is an old standard now.  Its block programming format has been adapted in countless other software interfaces. For work on the screen, Blocksworld and Minecraft are great. Blocksworld allows for block programming; Minecraft for 3-D building, although there are now multiple books and online learning opportunities for kids to learn about coding mods (modifications to the Minecraft world–from adding new tools to changing the weather and beyond).  App Inventor (and online Android app creation site) is another easy and free opportunity for preteens and beyond. For building in the real world, the Hummingbird Robotics Kit offers a more flexible and easier interface than the standard Arduino systems and (although I’ve yet to order a kit), Little Bits is an up-and-coming option.

If you’re interested in technology check out another 3 Question Interview, with award winning educator Jonathan Nalder who shared 3 mobile apps for Creativity.

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Choosing Presents that Promote Creativity at Christmas

Santa… Claus… is coming to town! And this means lots of Christmas shopping for parents. My boys haven’t got to the age where they can identify a list of wants and send these off to Santa – and this means their choice of presents is mine to make!   So, what gifts can we buy that will create magic on Christmas morning, but also provide opportunities to nurture and cultivate creativity at home.

Below is a list of five items that I believe can be used to cultivate skills in creativity.

  • The Olloclip can be found on Amazon. It’s basically a micro lens that clips on to your smartphone and lets you take really, really close up pictures. Come Spring you can take your kids on nature walks and grab all sorts of images that will stimulate curiosity and provide a whole new perspective to the tiny world that lives under our feet.
  • My boys are a little to young for this gift but the Makey Makey – An Invention Kit, has got ‘Maker’, ‘Wow Factor’ and a verity of problem-solving skills written all over it. I confess I haven’t checked it out but have identified it for Christmas 2016. I’ve seen people turn bananas into remote controllers for video games.
  • Legos – this stuff doesn’t need an introduction, I just encourage you to be cautious when purchasing ‘branded’ based playsets.. There’s certainly a place for our little ones to reenact the stories they see in the movies, but we don’t want them to be confined to the characters in these worlds. Instead we want them to create their own characters for their own worlds. Apart from that I really don’t think it matters what Lego you purchase. Some kids will probably play, others will build, but whatever happens Legos make create ‘Makers’. I don’t plan to spend this kind of money on Lego, but for educators the story starter kits from Lego Education are worth exploring.


  • Science Kits/Telescopes/Ant Farms, anything that stimulates wonder and curiosity for the world around us. I’ll be keeping it simple and purchasing a magnet set. These types of activities will work best with parent participation, who can facilitate questions and arise curiosity.
  • Games should really have their own section. Most games are renown for their problem-solving skills. There’s certainly little debate on the learning that takes place in game. The discussion is usually on whether this learning translates into the real world. Personally I feel that probably varies from game to game. Just to clarify, traditional board games are just as important as digital games. Personally I’m not in a rush to introduce Lucas to video games so I’ll be keeping to simple things like Connect4 – Remember not to give it away – let the little ones try and problem-solving how to win the game.

This is only my third Christmas as a Dad so I’m still learning on what to buy. Generally speaking, play is a creative act so you can’t really go wrong. I’d just suggest that you try and vary the types of toys in order to stimulate a wide variety of creativity skills.

Happy Holidays!

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