Last summer I met two boys (both under 10) who were thrilled to learn I played Minecraft. They wanted to know what I had built.

“Um, a really ugly castle,” I told them. “But it was taken over by zombies.”

“You don’t play Creative mode?” They were stunned. I replied that no, I liked Survival mode—the mode where you are frequently menaced by creeping zombies or giant spiders and need to painstakingly mine every element that you use to build. Creative mode gives players full access to the many, many materials in Minecraft and lets them build impossibly complex structures without being harassed.

These kids couldn’t understand why I wanted to spend my time fighting zombies when I could be building things.

That’s the awesome thing about Minecraft. It taps into the amazing ability kids have to make fun out of thin air. With their imaginations and building blocks provided by Minecraft, kids can accomplish incredible projects.

My castle in Minecraft. Compare it to literally anything anyone else has built and you'll see my problem.

My castle in Minecraft. Compare it to literally anything anyone else has built and you’ll see my problem.

Minecraft players have created amazing things--like this replica of Columbia from Bioshock Infinite. (Source: FreshInfos)

Minecraft players have created amazing things–like this replica of Columbia from Bioshock Infinite. (Source: FreshInfos)

So it’s no surprise that three years after its release Minecraft continues to be hugely popular with kids—and parents and teachers are being won over as well.

“Not only does the open-world nature of Minecraft give children the opportunity to be more creative, it allows them to feel like they have a sense of control over themselves and their environment,” writes Rey Junco for The Atlantic.

Junco references several skills that kids can learn from Minecraft. Among them are visuospatial reasoning, setting and working toward goals, collaborative problem-solving, and critical thinking—all things that are crucial to learning but difficult to test or assess in a classroom.

Minecraft is good at helping children form cooperative communities, whether they’re playing in the classroom or with friends. It also helps kids think about architecture and math in a more concrete way and apply spatial reasoning to their play.

So yeah, Minecraft is great. The only issue I take with Junco’s analysis is that other games can be too. Sure, Minecraft is unique in the scope of its awesomeness, but I don’t think that it’s fair to pit Minecraft against “the rest of the things that kids might do on a computer or phone,” as Junco does.

Minecraft isn’t the only game that teaches kids valuable skills.  In that vein, it’s important to think creatively about how to harness the learning potential in other games—maybe even ones that don’t seem so educational at all.

For example, if you have kids who really love Plants vs. Zombies, they’re already working on their hand-eye coordination.  And if you make time to play with them once in a while, you make time to encourage teamwork and collaboration.

Just Dance is another hugely popular game (and there’s a version for younger kids), and it’s a great way to encourage mobility and practice coordination in a safe environment. Whether your kids have a lot of kinetic energy that needs working out, or whether they’re shy about getting involved in real-life sports, Just Dance and other movement games can help.

And parents, don't try to get out of this one. Suck it up and have fun dancing with your kids. (Source: BBC)

And parents, don’t try to get out of this one. Suck it up and have fun dancing with your kids. (Source: BBC)

On mobile, Angry Birds is a kind of obvious example; it’s a quick intro course in physics, as well as causal relation. If you’re looking for something more story-driven, Don’t Let The Pigeon Run This App lets kids create their own stories—what could be better than that? They’re learning about narrative and using the app’s building blocks to create their own.

As Junco says, “the best educational interventions are those that meet youth where they are and use the energy associated with that space to encourage learning.”

We can all benefit by expanding our efforts beyond Minecraft.

Simone de Rochefort

Simone de Rochefort

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.