Kids and virtual reality is not the easiest topic. Well, kids combined with anything that has a screen bears potential for controversy. This, of course, especially applies to a technology that straps screens right in front of your eyes.
But no: virtual reality will not turn kids into will-less zombies. And no, it will not make them magically smart either. Like with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.
While VR first-person shooters are far from being adequate child entertainment, there already is a lot of enjoyable and educative virtual reality content for kids. It lets them explore the wide world (and beyond) without leaving the house. Additionally, there is the possibility for kids to create their own little worlds in virtual reality. And this possibility is worth exploring.
How to enable children to be a VR creator
Even though the VR hype is relatively new, there are already a few possibilities to build content for the new medium. The platform CoSpaces is especially fit for children since it offers a very low entry level – with respect to technical requirements, price and handling. The 3D content is built from customizable objects via drag and drop in a free browser app – on a computer or laptop.
The likewise free smartphone app can be used to explore the creations in VR. All you need is a smartphone with an inbuilt gyroscope sensor and a simple cardboard headset.
While it is clear that creating fantasy environments and entering them with a pair of “magical” glasses is fun for kids, it might not be as obvious what youngsters can learn from it. However, virtual reality bears a lot of potential for education – not only when it comes to virtual field trips to outer space or inside the body.
Let’s look at some things that kids can learn from creating their own VR content.
1. Children gain a better understanding of virtual reality as a medium
Glasses that cheat your brain into believing you’re at a different place – virtual reality is a fascinating technology… but it’s also somewhat confusing.
To understand the underlying mechanisms better, it helps to not only view content but also create it yourself. Being part of the whole process – from designing a 3D space on a flat screen to experiencing it in virtual reality – is a great hook to explaining the technology behind VR to kids.
2. They improve their spatial thinking
Designing 3D content is already a challenge in itself. Elements can be moved, rotated and combined. While kids plan their projects or pile virtual spheres on top of one another to create a snowman, they playfully train the ability to think three-dimensionally.
Virtual reality, however, adds an even more interesting challenge: Creating something on a computer screen that is supposed to be explored in VR requires a constant change of perspective. You look at the project from a bird’s view but have to build it for someone whom you imagine to stand in its middle.
A sandcastle, put together from basic geometrical shapes: https://cospac.es/d3hn
3. They train to change perspective
This change of perspective can go even further: When creating a VR environment, children not only change between the perspective of the creator and the explorer. They can also take on various perspectives on the world they have created: from the worm’s eye to the bird’s eye view. This is a vivid demonstration of how your own perspective influences how you see the world.
This demonstrative form of perspective change is one of the reason why VR creation can be interesting for class – for example, as a tool to talk about empathy and conflict-solving: Students can design (imaginary) conflict situations and virtually experience them from each party’s point of view before suggesting a solution. Similarly, it’s interesting to recreate scenes or figure constellations from literature to explore the perspective of different characters.
Looking at a visual summary of “Death of a salesman” from the point of view of Willy Loman’s wife: https://cospac.es/hrxS
4. Kids can think big with VR
Not even most adults have the chance to experience what it feels like to plan and shape the world around you on a grand scale: architects, landscape designers or city planners are some of them.
Of course, there is a reason why kids usually don’t design bridges. However, that is exactly why virtual reality is so interesting for them. It enables youngsters to map out houses, gardens and even whole cities. And even more: gives them a pretty realistic impression of what the life-sized implementation of their designs would look like.
A city scene built with CoSpaces: https://cospac.es/DPwd
6. There is a lot of creative potential
Pink elephants, hanging upside down from the sky – no problem in VR! It’s obvious that a medium with so few limitations is a great playground for creativity. The fascination with virtual reality is, of course, not only that you can create crazy virtual worlds but that you can also literally become part of them. This opens a whole lot of new possibilities for kids to tell stories.
Here again, there is big potential for the use in school. VR can, on the one hand, spice up the good old discipline of writing stories. For example, when students recreate scenes from their tales, so that they can be explored in virtual reality. On the other hand, VR literature interpretation is a fun way to make the classics meet 21st century technology – for instance, by letting kids recreate how they imagine important settings from a novel.
A VR story of a boy and his journey after he finds a rocket in his front garden: http://cospac.es/u0cH
No, none of this will turn kids magically into geniuses. However, they will have a lot of fun – and learn some useful skills on the side.
Susanne Krause is a guest contributor to AR/VR Magazine, former journalist and now working for the VR startup Delightex. Her childhood dream was a job on a starship with a holodeck; an office full of VR gadgets is a good first step.