Early Childhood Education, Intrinsic Motivation and Gamification
How can early childhood educators motivate children not just to learn, but also to learn because they enjoy it and are interested in the process? It may be useful to look at the ways in which young children choose to spend their free time. They enjoy playing games ranging from chance-based board games to organized outdoor sports. Young children are also becoming increasingly interested in television, video games and computer games. With this in mind, it is easy to see why a child would choose a new episode of television or the next level of a video game over another sheet of math problems or an hour of studying spelling. The former options are pleasing in and of themselves. The latter only become appealing activities when some external reward is offered.
Extrinsic Motivation vs. Intrinsic Motivation
Early childhood educators differentiate between two different types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsically motivated learning is focused on a potential reward at the completion of the task rather than on the learning itself. A young child is unlikely to continue the action if the sources of external validation cease. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is rooted in the task itself. A young child engages in intrinsically motivated learning if the process of learning or practicing is its own reward. External validation is unnecessary because the child is interested enough to keep working on a given task for a prolonged period of time.
Internet Technology and Intrinsic Motivation
Technology offers a variety of possible ways to merge education and enjoyment in a way that leads to intrinsically motivated learning. The Internet opens the world to students, allowing anything from virtual tours of nearly any location in the world to video tutorials and games aimed at teaching countless different subjects. It also provides a social environment through which young children can learn to read, write and communicate. For example, the website www.starfall.com is a phonics-based tool for children that teaches reading through interactive stories, games and videos. Using recommendations from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the producers of Starfall target children from 3-9 and have recently expanded their focus to include math and science. Many Starfall games are narrative-based, which helps young children learn not just to read but also to communicate in narrative terms. Much of human communication takes the form of narrative, so developing this skill early can prove to be immensely valuable later in life. In this way, communication learning can become intrinsically motivated through the use of Internet technology.
Intrinsic motivation in science and mathematics is not as common as in language and communication. Such subjects lack the social feedback and narrative structure of communication-based subjects. The plot of a story may be sufficient to motivate a student to finish reading, but the same cannot be said of a page of math problems. Internet technology can, once again, be used to bring about intrinsic motivation. For example, the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) offers a variety of early math activities that are geared for toddlers. Instantaneous systems of correction and reward, sufficient challenge, and a clear path to mastery can all motivate a student to persist in a task that may otherwise seem boring. Additionally, many websites provide tools for all stages of development and can follow a child throughout his/her academic studies. Sylvan Learning Center offers examples of popular math learning resources on their tutoring website.
Games and Intrinsic Motivation
Educational computer games can also be very helpful motivators to enhance learning. For instance, companies such as LeapFrog and VTech offer a number of different electronic toys that teach math and language skills in creative and fun ways. The prospect of a high-paying financial or engineering job in the future is far too abstract to motivate a young child to study mathematics for hours each day. On the other hand, learning math skills through the use of a handheld, interactive game can intrinsically motivate a child to learn and progress.
Games, properly used, can provide immediate feedback and also alert students to what they are doing wrong. The student does not need to wait for the teacher to correct an entire assignment; he can understand and fix his mistakes as he progresses. Educational games can also be highly personalized. Advanced students can move through materiel quickly while struggling students can take their time to work through difficult topics and problems. Perhaps most importantly, a game provides a framework for advancement. Students know that when they complete a set of problems, they will be rewarded. For example, the LeapFrog Star Wars Jedi math game allows the child to progress through more exciting levels and missions as correct answers are given. Players are able to defeat enemy ships and, at the same time, improve their math skills. The learning process is inextricably connected to the reward system, so the learning-game becomes its own reward and thus is intrinsically motivated.
Another benefit of technology-based learning is that it familiarizes students with modern computer technology. Students will need to make use of computers and technology throughout their educational and professional lives. Sitting down and learning a new computer system by following a manual is boring for young children and adults alike. But learning how to use computers and other devices by playing games makes the learning process fun and interesting. Students may develop computer skills without even realizing they are learning how to use a computer.
Technology can be used for early childhood education in many ways. Students can individually work through learning games or a class can collaboratively progress through an interactive narrative. They can improve both social communication skills and individual problem-solving skills through the use of games. Best of all, students often want to learn this way and do not require external validation.