Embracing tech, engaging kids
Fidgets2Widgets' new after-school program incorporates Minecraft and exercise into creative learning
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 games 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 doesnt 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.
Thats 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.
Were 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 its also active and creative.
A Widgetarians 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. Its 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.
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 thats projected onto the floor by the Beam system. They might visit the programs 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 dont feel like theyre learning; they just feel like theyre having fun.
With a bachelors degree in speech pathology and audiology and a masters 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.
The programs 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 programs 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 didnt set out to incorporate Minecraft into their program shed never heard of the game until one of her Widgetarians requested it shortly after the Eugene programs debut.
But once she realized the skills students could gain through the game which she compares to digital Legos she was sold. Shes 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 shes found the game to be popular across the board in her program, no matter a students 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 its 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 hes eager to explain what hes 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.
What: Fidgets2Widgets after-school enrichment
Where: 15495 S.W. Sequoia Parkway, Suite 100, Tigard