Learning Through Minecraft

Tapping Minecraft’s Educational Potential

Kids and adults have been creating three dimensional (3D) worlds in Minecraft for years. The Minecraft cows, pigs, chickens, and creepers have garnered huge fan bases. Very young children have learned to gather supplies like food and online elements like ‘redstone’ to survive and thrive in this network of digital worlds. But what’s really happening as kids navigate Minecraft’s vast online spaces? What are they learning and how can parents help mold the experience into one that boosts learning and creativity?

We recently spoke with Empow Studios camp director and senior instructor Ed Kunakemakorn, an electrical engineer, who helped create Empow’s Minecraft curriculum. He offers some insights and tips for parents.

What’s your general assessment of Minecraft?

As with any kind of game or learning platform, it is important to understand how it is being used and how to make the most out of the tools you are working with. Minecraft is one of the most popular programs in the world because of the variety of options given to the user and the openness of the gameplay. It is also because of this, that we can explore many paths to learning and growth within the platform.

How do the modes of play impact learning?

At Empow Studios, we encourage students to use creative mode rather than survival mode. Creative mode focuses more on building, whereas survival mode is more like playing a game with variables like health and hunger.

bedroom replica

In creative mode, students can make anything- including a replica of their own bedroom!

Explain the building, navigation, and construction aspects of Minecraft.

Minecraft allows users to build and construct things in 3D space. If you haven’t worked on a computer in 3D space before, think about the difference between drawing on a piece of paper and sculpting out of clay. When you work to create structures in three dimensions, your mind is making a lot more calculations and you are forced to look at things from different perspectives in order to achieve your goals.

How do students make these 3D structures work?

There are elements similar to  electrical components in Minecraft, which can be configured to create mechanisms. With the right wiring, you can create mechanical movement, or apply logic to an ‘electrical’ system. You can make a circuit that acts as a lock for your door that can only be triggered from inside your house. You might create a ‘clock’ or looped circuit to repeatedly send a signal to a piston that is set up as an obstacle in your parkour world. Throw a switch and open a secret door in the side of a mountain. People have even gone so far as to make in-game working computers with redstone.

There is also landscape design and civic planning. Explain.

Substances like water in Minecraft add a lot of flexibility to your ability to build functioning landscape systems in Minecraft. You might build a garden on a hill with solar powered irrigation to grow your crops in an efficient way. You can design a secret house into the side of a mountain if you’re looking for some natural camouflage. Roads, railways, or streams can be used in your world as a route between multiple communities to allow for travel and trading. Redstone wiring underneath it all can act as an electrical grid to power an entire city.

How do students create their own games in Minecraft?

Because of the openness of the Minecraft platform, you can design a number of different types of games. You might create a game to test your parkour skills in a world that has obstacles, enemies, and things to collect. You can design and execute a plot line for an adventure game, add hidden clues for a scavenger hunt, or program a capture the flag game and open all of them up to friends for multi-player fun. Switching between the modes of play can give the designer the ability to test their project with different variables in place and make choices for what works best in their game.

Do students learn to code in Minecraft?

They can learn about functions and commands. Running commands in Minecraft allows for a lot more options. It gives users the ability to execute a wide variety of built in functions, affecting the game play. It can also act as an introduction to the use of functions, variables, and language syntax similar to traditional coding. In combination with redstone mechanisms, the use of commands (via command blocks) can open up the world of Minecraft to an even greater wealth of options. We also use a platform for teaching kids how to modify (mod) Minecraft that is centered around drag and drop (DnD) ​and Java programming. ​They can essentially change aspects of the original game through coding. ​

Does Minecraft encourage teamwork or build social skills?

Minecraft can be a fantastic way for users to work together on a variety of different projects. The multi-player option allows you to play with your sibling in the same house or a friend on the other side of the world. In survival mode, you can work with a friend to defeat mobs, mine for materials, and build structures to live in. In creative mode, you can work together to build large complex designs or collaborate on a game idea. Depending on the size of the project, kids can team up with one or as many friends as they want. There is in-game chat and many higher level commands that can be used to customize their project. Outside of the game platform, there is also a lot of fan content about different ways to play or aspects of the game that kids can discuss with each other and learn from. ​

Does Minecraft impact reading and writing skills?

In many cases, kids are prompted to read and write just to fully interact and optimize their abilities. The world of Minecraft is massive. In order to understand how things work or learn about how to utilize the latest features, research is a crucial element. There is a Minecraft Wiki, along with many other sites and tutorials that break apart every detail of the game and give insider knowledge into the intricacies of play. If you prefer fiction to instructional materials, there’s also a wealth of fan fiction available about the world and characters of Minecraft. You can read stories about Notch or Steve and dive into the backstory of other characters. Kids also get practice writing when using codes. Writing (chat) happens all the time in-game between different players.

How do Empow’s Minecraft camps encourage creativity?

Our Minecraft camps are designed to allow students to level up their Minecraft abilities in different areas like design, building, and coding. They can work on their own projects or with friends. Challenges are given at different levels of ability that encourage creativity and logical thinking.

Do you have advice for parents?

Monitor who they play with. Bullying can still happen and it can be more covert in-game. Encourage learning and development in things like 3D space navigation and creation of 3D designs, redstone, commands, command blocks, and modding. Be aware of any ‘tutorial’ videos they are watching and what they are learning from them. Some are great and offer excellent information and others might focus more on the gaming side. Overall, Minecraft is an excellent learning platform that engages kids to learn because of their love for the world of Minecraft. The future plans for Minecraft are in the hands of Microsoft now. Regardless of what happens, a legacy has been created and there are a lot of kids (and adults) out there that have learned immeasurable amounts from Minecraft.

Editor’s Note: On November 1, 2016, Microsoft officially launched “Minecraft: Education Edition” for classrooms. In May of 2017, Microsoft announced a new version of Windows with programs designed to promote coding and collaboration among students based on the Minecraft education edition. These platforms are only accessible through schools via subscription. Minecraft: Education Edition is similar to the in-home version of Minecraft, but has added controls and features that have been requested by educators.


If you’d like your child to learn more about creative ways to use Minecraft:

-Join our Minecraft Club that meets Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

-Sign up for one of our summer Minecraft camps

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