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Tigard after-school program embraces digital classroom, video games

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aidan Shafer asks a question during a learning module at Fidgets2Widgets.In Pam Simon’s classroom in Tigard, there are a few simple rules:

“No yelling, no name calling,” a sign reads. “No Trolling. No deleting worlds.”

Simon is the co-founder of Fidgets2Widgets, a new after-school program along Southwest Sequoia Parkway that aims to give area middle school students a place gather after school.

The organization opened its Tigard space late last year, offering students a mix of physical activities, digital learning and video games designed to keep kids involved and entertained.

Simon and co-founder Sydney Ashland started Fidgets in Eugene in 2013.

The pair launched the company after years of struggling to find outlets for their own children.

“I was a frustrated mom,” Simon said. “If your child isn’t into sports, there aren’t many fun alternatives for after-school enrichment. When my boys were growing up, there wasn’t anything about computers in the schools. They’re starting to now, but it’s still not adequate.

“Finally, we thought, ‘Why don’t we stop complaining and do something? Be a solution?’ So we came up with the concept. It’s not just a class where kids come for an hour and leave. We wanted it to be an immersion experience.”

Here, Simon says, children can do what they love: Learn and play.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Edie King grabs a sword from Fidgets2Widgets educator Emmett Baber.

‘The game is the curriculum’

Simon says her approach is holistic. Students learn about strategy and communication through games like “League of Legends,” “World of Warcraft” and “Minecraft.”

Students learn everything from design to engineering to architecture.

The students also build virtual models and sculpt using the facility’s 3-D printer.

Simon calls her students “Widgetarians.”

“We had a whole section on corporate branding, and had the students come up with marketing plans and logos and learn how to brand,” Simon said.

“Minecraft” — one of the most popular video games of all time, with more than 72 million players, according to the company — is a big part of the operation’s curriculum.

It’s a deceptively simple game, which allows players to build structures by placing blocks into an on-screen “world” and with no obvious goal.

“It’s like digital Legos, but more,” Simon said. “For kids who like to build brick by brick, they can, but because it’s digital, there’s a component that teaches them about electrical circuitry, teaches about electrical systems, railroad systems. Everything.”

That freedom allows teachers at Fidgets2Widgets to teach students just about any subject, Simon said.

“You can recreate the Roman Coliseum using the game,” Simon said. “We’re using the tools and resources of the game, and learning is a byproduct. The kids that love to build, they are future architects, the future engineers. We’re not trying to adapt the game to our curriculum, the game is the curriculum. The kids still feel like they are playing it.”

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Fidgets2Widgets educator Emmett Baber leads a learning module on Animal Forensics.

Digital inheritors

Simon loves her job.

She’d have to, to drive nearly two hours to work each day.

Simon started the Tigard location six weeks ago in the hope of bringing their Eugene model to the Portland area.

“We’ve outgrown out home in Eugene,” Simon said. “We wanted something that we could grow into. We plan to be here for a while.”

The company has grown considerably in the last four years. The group has about 500 students participating in after-school programs at its 2,500-square-foot building in Eugene.

“In the summer, we have wait lists,” Simon said.

It’s a problem Simon hopes to one day have in Tigard.

The popularity in Eugene stems group of organization’s approach to learning, Simon said, which covers important topics in fun, engaging ways.

“We teach digital literacy, etiquette, online safety — all the things that could get them in trouble if they don’t know,” Simon said.

The trick, Simon said, is to teach children about being good citizens, without them realizing it.

“Last week, the kids were learning about online safety,” Simon said. “The FBI has a whole site for kids to use that uses games where they have to choose which was the more appropriate phrase or information to share. And it’s presented in a fun and engaging way.”

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pam Simon works with students during a learning module at Fidgets2Widgets.Taking a break, the Widgetarians and their teacher pull out foam swords and shields for a bit of swordplay, then it’s back to work learning about forensics.

“This generation flows seamlessly between the virtual and digital worlds and the real world,” Simon said. “They’re very versatile that way.”

If kids come up with a game or lesson they’d like, they can make that happen, Simon said.

“They are going to inherit the digital world, the digital economy,” said Simon. “We’re raising white hat hackers, not black hat. We want kids to be able to perform in the digital world for the good of all, not cyber criminals and the dark side. We try to make everything engaging and appealing.”

By Geoff Pursinger
Assistant Editor, The Times
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