Posted by Nate Dunlevy

One of the hot new trends in both education and library circles revolves around gamification. That’s the process of turning otherwise commonplace activities into a game in order to motivate users to participate. Many popular reading programs now institute badging systems as a fun way to reward kids for participating in the book logging activities.

While Evanced Solutions’ Summer Reader does have the ability to utilize badging principles, it has never been a focus of our efforts in reading engagement. External rewards like virtual badges or stickers can tap into the collector instinct in kids, but they don’t provide much long-range kick when it comes to motivation.

Badging as a reward system has been around as a concept for more than a century. G. Stanley Hall, one of America’s first students of the “child mind,” proposed that instruction should be a kind of collecting game where students are encouraged to gather scraps of information on literature, geology, and so on. (Folsom (1915) Pedagogical Seminary in Bernstein, 2011 Psychology Today). Others, including educator Elizabeth Howe, thought the method would work best if it took as its starting point the collecting interests of each individual child (Howe, 1906, The Collecting Instinct. Elementary School Teacher).

Why Collecting Matters

Collecting is an important way for a child to build autonomy and identity. The motives with which the collecting process is approached and the tasks associated with it aid children in their developmental process and in their search for identity.

What a child really collects is a method for expressing him or herself. Whether a collection serves as a public display or as a private preserve, it is a form of expression where he or she can materialize that abstract thing called the “self.” Whatever it is that is being collected is just a totem of some internal idea longing to be expressed. Whether it’s baseball cards or Barbie dolls, video games or books, the accumulation represents something to the child about his or her internal interests and world.


The Trouble with Badgingpull

Traditional badging has limited appeal as a reading motivator, because it forces the child to collect what someone else has deemed worthwhile. For younger kids, collecting is a kind of play that results in something to play with. These intrinsic satisfactions have much to do with the “playability” of free-choice collectibles, with how readily they inspire an absorbing make-believe. Single-function items or objects overly tied to pre-existing narratives like the inexpensive games or trinkets you might find in a fast food meal, for instance, often do not allow for the free rein of imagination. The imagination engages deeper thought processes of the child and greatens the impact of learning.

Collecting, like all forms of playing, exercises critical imaginative and cognitive skills. The items collected serve as repositories of distributed intelligence—handling, arranging and classifying concrete objects; animating and empathizing in make-believe adventures. For a time, the objects that are collected store both the “what” and the “how” of inner life, as the child learns to think, to imagine, and to reflect. Sometimes a collection is not just a collection, but a spur to the imagination, to learning and creating (Bernstein, Childhood collecting a neglected connection between playing and learning, Psychology Today, 2011).

Advocates of badging are on the right track, but they have stopped short of the goal, when it comes to motivating reading behavior in kids. The instinct to collect is powerful and has undeniable impact on the absorption of information in children. However, when all that is being collected is just an image or a badge chosen by someone else, the badge becomes just another extrinsic motivator, which we know lacks lasting impact on behavior.

Gamification is important to incorporate into any reading program, and it’s a great thing to tap into the innate collecting instinct in kids. When we allow kids to collect items based on their interests, however, we can move beyond simple rewards and cross over into the realm of self-expression, imagination, and autonomy. That is where the real long-term gains can be found.

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