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Conversations around esports have centered on collegiate and secondary levels, but recently, the conversation has expanded to include elementary esports too

6 tips to help start an elementary esports program in your school

Conversations around esports have centered on collegiate and secondary levels, but recently, the conversation has expanded to include elementary esports too

Each year, we share our 10 most-read stories. Not surprisingly, many of this year’s Top 10 focused on innovative ways to engage students, digital resources, and online and hybrid learning strategies related to post-pandemic teaching. This year’s 2nd most-read story focuses on creating an elementary esports program.

The benefits of esports are well documented. A significant body of research has found that students who participate in scholastic esports programs benefit from increased emotional regulation, academic achievement, and graduation rates.

These benefits only scratch the surface of the positive consequences for students participating in scholastic esports. Thus far, conversations around esports have centered on collegiate and secondary levels, however, a recent change in the winds has shifted the conversation to elementary esports. 

My question: Why haven’t we started this conversation sooner?

I’ve come a long way in my journey from a skeptic with a critical view of esports in schools to a fierce advocate. In one year, I shifted from being an educator who didn’t value an expanded role of video games in schools to a teacher developing an elementary esports curriculum, running multiple esports summer camps, and developing an elementary esports after school club. 

I teach an elementary STEM class called iCreate in South Haven Public Schools. We are a small community located on the “sunset coast” of Lake Michigan. Our economy is driven by tourism and agriculture. Nestled in Michigan’s fruit belt, South Haven is the Blueberry Capital of the world. Our small community hosts the National Blueberry Festival every year and countless high school students work the local u-pick blueberry fields.

My STEM class, iCreate, is a part of our K-12 STEM continuum. In iCreate, students develop problem-solving skills through engineering challenges, collaborative inquiry projects, and media creation. While I have long been a proponent of game-based learning, I had (up until this past year) been skeptical of the role of esports in education. 

Summer 2021: Farmcraft Summer Camp

As the summer of 2021 approached, the faculty at South Haven Public Schools was tackling the best way to address pandemic learning loss while keeping students connected to the one stable thing in their lives: school. An invitation for teachers to design and lead summer enrichment camps seemed like a good way to connect with students in a manner not afforded during the regular school year. I could design a camp without worrying about standards alignment, summative assessments, or grades.

After a year of remote and hybrid learning, leading a camp with any sort of technology was the LAST thing on my mind. In fact, I wanted to lead a camp about gardening, one of my favorite summer pastimes, but how do you get 10- and 11-year-old students to sign up for a camp about plants

Enter NASEF’s Farmcraft 2021. 

Our local esports league commissioner mentioned that the North America Scholastic Esports Federation had released a Minecraft world for esports competition called Farmcraft. The mission: work collaboratively to successfully farm in different biomes. While many of our community’s families rely on local farms for their livelihood, students understand very little about agriculture. Farmcraft would provide the perfect opportunity to draw students into a science camp; competitive video game play would interest students, and discussing healthy gaming habits would interest their grown-ups. Added bonus: I would have plenty of opportunities to get dirty planting and exploring farming with my students.

I organized my summer camp around three key concepts: healthy gamer habits, farming around the world, and the life cycle of plants. Every day, we explored plants through hands-on experiments, farmed in Minecraft, and stayed active with recess breaks. 

On the last day of camp, the head of the SWMI Esports League, a NASEF affiliate, joined us to oversee a friendly scrimmage. Students received team jerseys that were custom designed for the camp: shirts with our summer camp logo representing healthy bodies, healthy minds, healthy relationships, Farmcraft. 

Tip 1: Get started, then get better

Like any new venture, esports is something that takes time to fully understand. As the late Dr. Richard DuFour reminded educators, we have to be willing to “get started, then get better.” The beauty of esports is that there is a room full of experts to journey alongside their teacher. It is incredibly powerful when the classroom is flipped and students have an opportunity to share their passions and expertise with their teacher.

Build ‘beyond the game’ for max esports impact
How Minecraft and agriculture lead to an esports competition

Tip 2: Start small–and start with what you have

I attribute the success of our elementary esports program to what we learned during that camp. Students were surprisingly receptive to conversations around balancing media habits (including video game play) because we connected it to recess. We connected what we learned in science explorations to Minecraft, even developing our own aquaponics systems in Minecraft to compare them to crops that received water alone.

A trial run such as a summer camp or afterschool event (such as an Hour of Code family night) is a great way to determine viability of a more extensive program. Minecraft: Education Edition is a great title to start with. The controls teachers had, a wide variety of content and worlds, and Minecraft’s “low threshold but infinite ceiling” (as Microsoft says) made it a title that was accessible to nearly every student. It could also run on almost every platform, and both PCs and mobile devices.

Tip 3: Embed esports into existing curriculum

Esports can be a standalone unit (or class), however, collaborative gameplay, mindfulness, team building, and reflection are practices that can be embedded in countless curricular units. Esports worlds such as NASEF’s Farmcraft 2021 and 2022, NASEF and AEOP’s Junior Solar Sprint, and Random House’s League of Literacy are just a few examples of the possibilities of embedding esports and Minecraft: Education Edition into existing curricula. I redesigned digital citizenship lessons to provide ample opportunities for students to interact with one another in a digital environment at the same time as they worked collaboratively IRL (in real life).

Rather than a standalone lesson, we co-constructed classroom expectations to extend how we treat each other to include interactions in digital environments. I now observe fewer instances of rage quitting (leaving games angry), tilting (emotional dysregulation), and griefing (playing in a way that affects others’ gameplay and enjoyment in a negative way). We followed a very basic principle: video games are for everyone

Tip 4: Make it authentic

The worst activity in school is the “experiment” where every student follows the same steps and the teacher already knows the answer. That’s not authentic learning. 

Esports affords us an incredible opportunity to learn with and from our students. As teachers, we can facilitate learning and help students find the language to describe what they observe, learn, and wonder. Students, in return, can share their expertise of video games with their teacher and each other. Maya Angelou said, “The sum of us is greater than all our parts.” Some of the most memorable learning moments arise from a question and the response, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.” Don’t be afraid to jump into esports without knowing all of the answers. There is nothing wrong with adjusting plans and going on “side quests” with students. 

Tip 5: Be intentionally inclusive

Diversity, inclusion, and access do not happen accidentally. To have a program that allows students to see themselves in nontraditional roles, teachers must be intentionally inclusive. Find role models and videos that feature people from marginalized populations in STEM careers. Personally invite students to participate in esports clubs and camps who might feel as though they don’t belong. Explore resources from The GameHERS, Women in Games, and other groups who are intentionally reaching out to marginalized groups.

Tip 6: Keep everyone on the same team

Competition in schools has been shown to have a negative effect on elementary-aged students. While some cultures value competition, others value collaboration. In elementary esports, inclusion and competition are mutually exclusive. Although students were divided into teams for gameplay, we learned from each other during Farmcraft Camp. Teams shared out new strategies and discoveries every day. There was no ranking system, no score keeping. Teams set goals for themselves based on performance from the day before. The only player a student should be competing against is themself. 

Elementary Esports in the Blueberry Capital of the World

The success of our elementary esports camp inspired me to apply to be a NASEF Scholastic Fellow for the 2021-2022 school year. As a Scholastic Fellow, I have continued to explore esports and develop materials for bringing esports into elementary. As a part of the Fellows Program, I am writing an elementary esports curricular unit for NASEF’s Community Library.

I’ve expanded the esports program in South Haven Public Schools to include an exploration of STEM careers in the esports ecosystem. I am adapting materials from the NASEF curricula to make key understandings in esports accessible to elementary students. This summer, I am leading two elementary esports summer camps. In the works is an after school esports club (requested by a parent!) and family gamer nights in which young gamers can play Minecraft with their grown-ups. The addition of a Nintendo Switch to our lab, made possible through a Meta Educator Grant from the LCG Foundation, will expand our titles to include Rocket League and Fall Guys. 

Located on the sunset coast of Lake Michigan, South Haven community members have always shared a love for fresh picked blueberries and the beauty of Lake Michigan in every season. Over the past year, the development of our elementary esports program has helped us see that we share a love for gaming, and I for one, can’t wait to see what the future holds.

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Laura Ascione

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