We’re almost four weeks into complete lockdown in the UK. It’s been a month since the schools shut. Which means it’s been a month since my wife Laura and I have unceremoniously been given exclusive responsibility for our five-year-old Toby’s education.
We’re all in this. It’s really shit. If you’re a parent, you’ll know about the workbooks being sent home, filled with dozens of tasks to complete, along with reams of printable resources pouring into your inbox. Lorry-loads of perceived obligation dumped in your lay-person laps, handed over by panicking schools. No one knows how much they’re supposed to be doing, but every parent feels like they’re not doing enough. And everyone else feels like they’re not coping, it’s not just you. If you too are feeling burdened by the almost incomprehensible responsibility to suddenly homeschool your own child for the foreseeable future, I want to bring you two messages of calm:
1) No, it’s not your responsibility at all. Your responsibility is to be their parent, to surround them with love in these godawful times, and if you get some learning in there too, then you are winning.
2) It turns out Animal Crossing contains the entire elementary school* syllabus.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is my first ever Animal Crossing game. Honestly, I never understood the appeal before. It always looked like a way to spend my leisure time doing all the chores I was trying to avoid by having leisure time. But this time out, in the bizarro-world we now live in, the idea of an idyllic island home surrounded by happy folk, muddling away my time with menial tasks, seemed like an impossibly bucolic paradise. So of course my boy wanted to see what I was playing.
It was within minutes of sitting down on the couch with Toby that I realized we were onto something here. He was immediately enamored, enough so that he finally found the incentive to get over his frustrations with game controllers. That there were bugs to net and fish to catch meant he was in, and he became determined enough to get to grips with two analogue sticks. In fact, such was his determination that he began voluntarily reading the words on the screen to be able to do so. He wanted to craft a fishing rod, so “f-i-sh-ing r-od” he would read. Voluntarily reading! With no threats or bribes! What magics was this?!
And it continued. Brilliantly, Animal Crossing puts key words in a different color to the rest of its rather needlessly verbose dialogue. So I read it out until we get to the blue word, then Toby reads that one. It’s not onerous, because he wants to know what this says far more than the contents of one of his unutterably boring level 3 phonics books. Here he’s willingly reading entire sentences, because it’s going to tell him how to get the next thing he wants.
All of a sudden he was interpreting four-digit numbers, which is far beyond anything they’ve tried to teach him in his first year of school. He wanted to know how many Bells he had, see. “Two thousand and fifty, daddy?” Yes! That’s right! That’s amazing! Yesterday morning while playing he read out 14,192. I don’t think even he knew he could do that.
Then there’s shopping. Every first-year school classroom has a pretend shop in it. Understanding how money works is an essential part of education. Until very recently, as in days ago, Toby’s version of playing shop still meant he’d insist on giving you the money you needed to buy anything. Which would clearly be an amazing shop, but not perhaps a long-term business strategy. In Animal Crossing, Toby is realizing he has to give Bells to Timmy in order to get things in return. And of course that he’ll get some back when he sells his shells and weeds.
How about dates and times? OK, perhaps those have recently become far less important metrics to most of us, as all our calendars melt into one amorphous ambiguous “today.” But due to the game’s time matching real life’s, here’s my boy meaningfully reading off the current date, and what time of day it is, in a way he’s never comprehended before.
Oh, and he needs five branches to make that fishing rod? How many has he got? 2? So how many more does he need? His fingers out, he’s counting it, and then delighted at getting the answer, rushing off to fulfill that goal. And there, math has gone from an abstract annoyance to a useful system.
I’m sat there on the sofa, coffee mug resting on my belly, thinking, “I am nailing this.”
We had no idea what we were going to do when they closed the schools. Laura and I both run businesses from home, and as such were entirely dependent upon those six hours of childlessness a day. Quickly came the frenzied negotiating, the panicked planning, the ridiculously overly optimistic timetable drawn up and then scrapped after a single day. There was that belief we now had to become overnight qualified primary school teachers, without the three years of university education that usually precedes it.
And of course that’s all rubbish. As one rather splendid and presumably apocryphal Facebook forward so perfectly put it, “This is not homeschooling. This is an unprecedented emergency situation… In reality, it’s everyone trying to separate their bums from their elbows, because none of us knows what we’re doing.” And honestly, it was Animal Crossing that really made this all click for me.
It certainly helps that it’s an enormously fun and open game to a five-year-old’s mentality. Right now Toby’s tent has both an internal and external zoo, after he discovered he could “pl-a-ce i-tem”s with the fish and bugs he’s caught. He of course also discovered he could strip all his clothes off, and pick up all my stuff and drop it in the sea. It’s perhaps not all learning.
But the list of its offerings goes on. You have to save up for things you want to have. Sharing helps you get further in the game. Shaking trees makes money fall out. It’s a social game, where being kind to your companions makes their lives better, and in turn your own improves—my goodness, if that were the only thing he learned in his entire school life, I’d be happy. And of course there’s all that lovely information about fish, bugs and dinosaurs. Which just so happen to be his three main topics of interest. Heck, there’s an ever-growing museum/aquarium to wander around, in a time when that’s otherwise impossible.
Toby just came in the room, so I asked him, “What have you learned from Animal Crossing?” He reeled off a list of the controls, and how he can jump over rivers with a pole. He’s oblivious. And yet, alongside all the other play-based learning we’re doing, he’s gaining so much confidence with reading, numbers, and application of learning each time we sit down to play. Clearly he’s spending far more time haring around the garden, and building house-wide assault courses, than sat on the Switch. I’m perhaps not advocating completely replacing all of primary education with Nintendo’s capitalism simulator. Toby’s patience for anything is extraordinarily brief, so if we’re able to play for an hour every few days I’m lucky. But it has proven a completely fantastic part of our home-schooling, and one that’s helpfully taught me that learning is something that can be done in myriad ways. I’m not a teacher. I’m not required to be a teacher. But I’m a dad, and that’s the job I need to focus on.
Animal Crossing has not only proven a wonderful safe place for me in these turbulent times, as my own mental health crumbles beneath me, but also a joyful way to watch my boy learn without even realizing he’s doing it. That, and insist his character go everywhere in his underwear, while digging up all my plants.
*Boring UK to US translation service: In the UK, primary school starts the September before a child turns 5, generally called Reception year. In the US, compulsory school starting ages are determined state by state, varying from 5 to 8.
John Walker is a freelance games critic, who currently spends most of his time finding undiscovered indie gems on his website. You can support it on Patreon.