Providing space for social communication in a STEM engagement project

Providing space for social communication in a STEM engagement project

22 Mar 2021

Neurodiversity Week celebrates our unique strengths and differences, while recognising that the many talents of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodiverse ways of thinking and learning are often not suited to traditional, formal learning environments.

Science Hunters is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) outreach and research programme that uses Minecraft to engage children from under-represented groups with STEM. Projects have covered a wide range of topics such as the Amazon rainforest, understanding diabetes, earth science and volcanoes and space, with the Building to Break Barriers project currently running at UWE Bristol engaging children with many aspects of engineering.

Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge range of constructions. It can be played either as a single-player game or in a shared virtual world with multiple users playing together, and was chosen for Science Hunters because of its popularity (children want to play it!), particular appeal to children who learn differently, and suitability for explaining science.

A key target group for Science Hunters is children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), particularly through a dedicated Minecraft Club that has been running since 2015. It soon became clear that taking part in the club, alongside children with similar needs in an accepting environment, and playing a game which was a shared special interest, had more benefits for participants than STEM learning alone.

When face-to-face sessions are possible, as they were until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minecraft Club uses a dedicated server, so that children can play together in a safe social online space. Most of the children who attend have ADHD, autism and/or dyslexia. Spaces are limited to no more than 16 at a time, with simple guidelines to keep the club fun; children are not under pressure to conform to ‘neurotypical’ behaviour norms as may be expected in non-specific settings.

STEM topics are briefly introduced, and then participants are free to build in Minecraft in relation to that topic; while adults are there to guide and support, children are encouraged to follow their own interests and ideas to create their own unique designs. For four years, data were collected from participating children and their parents/carers, who attended with them, through surveys and interviews.

During this time, 101 children aged 5-17 years attended; responses were gathered from 29 children and 37 caregivers. Results indicated that children both enjoyed and learnt something from attending, and while their feedback understandably often focused on Minecraft, they also indicated that they had benefitted socially and emotionally from being in the shared space with other children with similar interests. This was supported by insights from parents and carers, who described benefits outside the club, such as improved confidence and wellbeing, improved social skills, and reduced need for formal learning support.

Interest in playing Minecraft is what motivates children to attend, and the game provides a range of opportunities for children to potentially develop social and educational skills. This is supported by the process of designing and completing builds, independently or collaboratively, and communicating with others within the shared virtual world. Playing in the same physical space enhances this, as communication can move between the virtual and real worlds and allow in-person peer support and the ‘safe space’ provided in our Minecraft Club supports children with SEN to interact naturally and spontaneously. While it was set up as part of STEM outreach, the social communication impacts of our Minecraft Club – such as making friends, fitting in, and feeling valued without judgement regardless of completing tasks or conforming to expected social behaviours – are at least as important.

Minecraft Club is currently running virtually as part of Building to Break Barriers. We’ve looked at earthquake-proof buildings, protecting against flooding, tunnels, drones and more, and are exploring the effects of the change to meeting online. If you would like to know more, please contact us at curiosityconnections@uwe.ac.uk

More information about Minecraft Club, and its impacts reported here, is available in Hobbs et al. (2020) Shared special interest play in a specific extra-curricular group setting: A Minecraft Club for children with Special Educational NeedsEducational and Child Psychology, 37(4), 81-95.