What educators can learn from Pokémon Go

The future of virtual reality in the classroom

Pokémon Go may get students outside, but some experts say it doesn't exercise the same problem-solving parts of the brain that traditional make-believe does.

When the virtual reality app premiered in July, it took over.

The game layers a fantastical world over the real one, seen through a mobile phone. So as players wander their physical surroundings, they can explore the animated Pokémon world, too.

People praised the game for getting kids and adults alike outside, walking around, and interacting. Educators have talked about its potential for everything from geography lessons to pure socialization.

"If done right, some say the technology [Pokémon] Go introduced to the world could bring back the kind of outdoor, creative, and social forms of play that used to be the mainstay of childhood. Augmented reality [AR], it stands to reason, could revitalize the role of imagination in kids' learning and development," writes Georgia Perry for The Atlantic.

Imaginative play—such as pretending the floor is lava or a treehouse is a castle—is a significant part of child development.

"Research shows that in creating the experience themselves, kids learn all sorts of skills that come in handy later in life, such as problem-solving and being inventive," Perry writes.

AR may just be the result of mixing video games and make-believe, says Devon Lyon, a media producer. 

Lyon argues AR will get kids off the couch and into play that's more similar to pure make-believe than games such as Grand Theft Auto.

Other experts, however, say any sort of technology chips away at—rather than extends—a student's imagination.

"Pokémon Go is getting people outside but they're still doing a very prescribed thing. They're still being controlled by the screen," says Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College.  "By some classic definitions, that isn't play."

When people play Pokémon Go, they may be outside, but they still use the same part of their brain as when they play traditional video games. It's also the same part used when following GPS directions instead of mapping one's own way, according to Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo.

 However, Lyon says Pokémon Go shows the potential for future games to better support instruction in the real world.

"If storytellers and creatives work in conjunction with developers, and if we're careful, what we can see is a merging of video games and imaginative play," Lyon says (Perry, The Atlantic, 8/4).

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