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Embracing tech, engaging kids

Fidgets2Widgets' new after-school program incorporates Minecraft and exercise into creative learning


CONNECTION PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - McKenna Mitchell, a third-grader at Montclair Elementary School, enjoys driving the 'Sphero' robotic ball using a tablet app at the Fidgets2Widgets after-school enrichment program in Tigard.Edie King used to count down the minutes until she could play Minecraft each day, says her mom, Sally Murdoch.

And as a mom who rarely so much as turns on the TV at home, Murdoch says she was frightened by the game’s hold on her daughter, a third-grader at Bridlemile Elementary School in Southwest Portland.

That was until Murdoch heard about Fidgets2Widgets — an after-school program located just across I-5 from Lake Oswego that not only embraces Minecraft, but also hails its benefits as one of many tools to encourage fun, high-tech learning.

In the program, King spends part of her afternoon playing the game with other students her age and also takes exercise breaks, participates in an interactive lesson from co-founder Pam Simon and does her homework. Now when she gets home, King usually prefers to go outside or spend time with her mom, rather than play games on the iPad.

“She doesn’t even ask (to play Minecraft) anymore,” Murdoch says. On top of that, she says King has become more engaged at school, too. “As soon as I started embracing the technology side of her learning, she started reading well. She started doing math well.”

That’s just one of many success stories Simon has heard in the three years since she and Sydney Ashland founded Fidgets2Widgets in Eugene. She and Ashland, both moms themselves, were frustrated by the “babysitting” model of many after-school offerings and set out to create an enrichment program with the tagline: “Holistic, High Energy, High Tech.”

“We’re very serious about learning, but we want it to be fun and engaging,” says Simon. “Everything that we have is through the lens of technology, but it’s also active and creative.”

A Widgetarian’s world

Simon established the Southwest Portland program in December and has made the two-hour drive from Eugene nearly every day since. The Portland facility is located at 15495 S.W. Sequoia Parkway #100, just off Carman Drive. It’s open school days from 1-6:30 p.m. to accommodate homeschoolers as well as working parents, and is also open Saturdays from noon-4 p.m. and non-school days from 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.CONNECTION PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - Fidgets2Widgets co-founder Pam Sullivan, left, helps Deer Creek Elementary fifth-grader Gianna Bennett in the program's computer lab, where students play games such as Minecraft and work on homework.

The program is designed for students ages 8-14 — or, as Simon calls them, “Widgetarians.” Parents pay a flat fee to drop their kids off — $20 for an afternoon, $40 for a non-school day. Students can also participate in camps throughout the summer to stave off “brain drain,” Simon says.

When the kids are not playing Minecraft, they might use a tablet to move the app-enabled robotic “Sphero” ball through the room or step and hop on a virtual play area that’s projected onto the floor by the Beam system. They might visit the program’s Makerspace, where they can learn about robotics with Lego Mindstorms kits, watch a design of their choice take shape on the 3D printer, create costumes with a sewing machine, do basic woodworking using kits from Home Depot or make their own YouTube video using a digital camera, tripod and tablets.

“Every single activity has a learning element,” says Simon. “But the kids don’t feel like they’re learning; they just feel like they’re having fun.”

With a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and audiology and a master’s in social work, Simon has spent almost 20 years as a medical social worker. She also has experience working with autism and sensory integration issues. Ashland spent 17 years as a child counselor and has authored two books with Simon: “Parenting High Energy Kids” in 2004 and “Mind Your Minecraft, Eat Your Vegetables!” in 2015.

Digital citizens

The program’s tech focus allows Simon and her team to teach students about being good digital citizens, preparing them to inherit an increasingly technological world.

In the computer lab, a board on the wall reminds students of the program’s pillars of digital citizenship: private, balanced, respectful, kind, safe and legal. The students play on a private server at Fidgets2Widgets, protected from online predators.

Simon says she and Ashland didn’t set out to incorporate Minecraft into their program — she’d never heard of the game until one of her Widgetarians requested it shortly after the Eugene program’s debut.CONNECTION PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - Bridlemile Elementary third-grader Edie King, right, enjoys playing Minecraft with friends after school at Fidgets2Widgets.

But once she realized the skills students could gain through the game — which she compares to “digital Legos” — she was sold. She’s since seen kids learn real-world skills such as coding, physics, engineering, architecture and design, and also improve their math, reading and keyboarding skills as they build and modify virtual Minecraft “worlds” where not even the sky is the limit.

Simon says she’s found the game to be popular across the board in her program, no matter a student’s age or gender. In fact, Minecraft has grown to become one of the most popular video games of all time; the game has sold more than 70 million copies across various gaming platforms, as Tech Times reported in July 2015.

Minecraft is the first thing the students name when asked what they like about the after-school program. But it’s not the only thing they enjoy there.

Hallinan Elementary School fourth-grader Madelyn Ferguson says that in addition to playing the game, she also enjoys driving the “Sphero” ball and jumping on the Jungle Jumparoo during exercise breaks.

Ari Mitchell, a third-grader at Montclair Elementary in Southwest Portland, says he comes to Fidgets2Widgets to spend time with other students and learn about technology.

Of course, he certainly enjoys the gaming aspect, too — and he’s eager to explain what he’s learning and creating in his virtual world.

“When I learned how to launch rockets (on Minecraft), I thought, ‘Wow — maybe I could do this in real life,’” he says.

Contact Kelsey O’Halloran at 503-636-1281 ext. 101 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

LEARN MORE

What: Fidgets2Widgets after-school enrichment

Where: 15495 S.W. Sequoia Parkway, Suite 100, Tigard

Info: www.fidgets2widgets.com