Like a large number of North American households with Internet access and elementary age children this holiday season, our home was the scene of many hours logged on both Club Penguin and Webkinz the past couple weeks.
After Christmas, we made a momentous purchase for our five year old: A new Webkinz Penguin she’s named “Sparkle,” which has provided her with the virtual keys to experience the online world of Webkinz along with her older brother and sister. It is amazing to watch our kids teach each other different things about these virtual worlds. They are acquiring more than motor skills: There is a LOT of reading and problem solving going on, not to mention personal finance management as they decide how to use or save the virtual fortunes they are amassing in these online worlds.
My son explained to me yesterday why he would never consider running Webkinz as a separate webapp with a program like Prism— he always has other webpages open (as tabs) when he’s playing Webkinz, where he gets tips and tricks for what to buy in the store, what to play, etc. When I asked him how he found those websites to use, the tone of his answer when he said “Google” communicated something like, “Geez Dad, what planet do you live on?”
This evening we had an important teachable moment involving Webkinz, which highlights multiple things– including the importance of parents having regular discussions with children about what they are doing online. While my 11 year old son was away from his laptop, but still logged into Webkinz, my 8 year old daughter used his account and sent herself a 50% discount coupon for the Webkinz store from his account. She hadn’t obtained permission to do this, and she knew it was wrong. This led to several discussions tonight, apologies, and a consequence that she can’t use the computer at home for the next two days.
Things that happen in the virtual, online world DO matter just as things we do in the real, face-to-face world matter. Perceptions shape reality. I explained to my daughter that her act of going into her brother’s Webkinz account and sending herself that coupon without permission was just like him going into her room and eating a box of chocolates that she received for Christmas, without permission. It was stealing, taking something that did not belong to her without permission, and it was wrong.
Sarah was testing the boundaries of what she could do online and get away with, and testing boundaries is a very natural thing for kids to do. Overall I think our discussions about this were very constructive. She actually wrote my son a note and tried to give him a large part of her Christmas money that she’d received as compensation for this “Webkinz wrong,” so this situation provided a good opportunity to also discuss forgiveness and grace. Lots of good discussions about ethics.
During 2006-2008 when I worked for AT&T as a state education advocate and presented frequently on the topics of Internet safety and safe digital social networking, I was often amazed how conversations with students about Webkinz could tie directly into important lessons about password security and digital citizenship. In a large group of elementary students, typically there would be at least one student who had lost control of his/her Webkinz password and had all their Webkinz possessions sold as a result by a malicious Webkinz account thief. When I invited students to share their stories about Webkinz thefts, it was amazing to see how RIVETED other students were in listening to these tales. These were not “pretend” or “just virtual” experiences that had happened to the child’s Webkinz account: These were REAL experiences that were VERY traumatic and led to some important lessons learned.
When I was growing up, I didn’t have opportunities to interact with others and amass virtual possessions in online worlds like Club Penguin or Webkinz. While kids as well as adults can certainly waste a lot of time online playing games as well as consuming media in various forms, I think there is much more comparative value to my children participating in interactive, online environments like these rather than simply watching television passively. The advent of more streaming video shared on websites means passive TV watching CAN and does happen frequently when kids are online, but I’d say they spend at least 90% of their time online interactively DOING things rather than just “watching.”
I saw tonight that Nick Jr has launched a new commercial enterprise, MyNoggin, which is subscription-based and encourages kids to remain active/engaged on the website by earning virtual marbles and exchanging them for furniture and toys to put in their own virtual rooms. Sounds a lot like Webkinz and Club Penguin. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the pattern and recipe here.
It’s amazing to compare the level of self-directed learning and engaging online learning opportunities available to my children here in our home, to the traditional, textbook and worksheet-based classroom learning experiences to which they’ll return tomorrow at school. Strange ironies of our 21st century existence.
– Everyone has a laptop they can use
– Everyone has access to filtered but very open high speed WiFi Internet access
– Everyone has access to an iPod, iPod Touch or my iPhone to watch movies, play games, or access other web applications
– No one has a laptop (even the teachers don’t)
– No WiFi Internet is available for anyone to use
– iPods and iPhones are banned
My son was shaking his head tonight as he said several times, “I can’t believe tomorrow is school.” Yep. Back to school. Get out that paper and pencil. It’s going to be time for another spelling test.
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