A recent study supports the theory that kids learn best when they can touch things. Researchers from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh explored how kids played using both screens and physical blocks. They found that blocks (as we all know) are pretty great.

While we know that games can be extremely effective teaching tools, the fact that many video games are constrained to the screen may be a poor use for that potential. The study specifically looked at a particular “game”—building-block towers that can withstand a shaking table. The kids were split into four groups. The groups played with different media. Two groups tried physical blocks + Kinect (with a projected screen), one tried a virtual blocks on a tablet, and the last tried virtual blocks on a laptop.

Kinect learning

A father and daughter engaging in a Kinect learning experience.

The kids that used the physical blocks + Kinect fared much better than their counterparts—they built more stable towers and enjoyed the game more.  The researchers’ conclusion was that “mixed-reality games that support physical observation in the real world have a great potential to enhance learning and enjoyment for young children.”

I have a lot of questions that I hope future studies will look into:

  • What would the results of a physical block experiment with no Kinect be?
  • Is this experiment applicable across topics? Blocks, whether physical or virtual, offer a very specific type of learning experience. What would happen if we tried a similar experiment with a topic like history or social justice?
  • Finally, I have to challenge the assumption that the block game was more fun simply because it was physical. There are several other experiential factors that we have to assume have some weight. Did the virtual games offer adequate sensory feedback? Did they encourage group participation? (Screens are small and typically don’t allow more than one individual to interact at one time.) Could all the kids even see the tablet screen while they were working? These questions don’t necessarily discount the study’s findings, but they may point to a different reason for the results.

Whatever future studies find, I strongly believe that mixed-media learning experiences are a great way for kids to explore the world. People learn in myriad ways, and the more experiences we can offer in schools (and at home), the more kids we’ll reach.

This article was written by

Keezy is a gamer, illustrator, and designer. Her background is in teaching and tutoring kids from ages 9 to 19, and she's led workshops for young women in STEM. She is also holds a certificate in teaching English. Her first memory of gaming is when her dad taught her to play the first Warcraft when she was five. You can find her at Key of Zee and on Twitter @KeezyBees.