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From Penguins to Mod Squad: The Undercover Mom’s Virtual World Journey

My fascination (some might say obsession) with children’s virtual worlds began unremarkably enough when my 8 year old asked me how to spell “penguin”. It would have struck me as odd anytime for my son to be worried about his spelling, but in the midst of a playdate with his best buddy, it seemed particularly uncharacteristic.  As it turned out, the boys had been trying unsuccessfully to log onto Club Penguin, and had a substantial browsing history to show for it (www.clubpingwin.com,  www.clubpingwing.com, www.clubpingwon.com and the like).

Truth be told, I generally discourage screentime during my children’s playdates, but something about the desperation in these kids’ eyes – and the article in the New York Times about the Disney Company buying Club Penguin for $700 million dollars – piqued my curiosity.  So I caved.  Beyond caved, really.

That night, after my son went to bed giddy with excitement over the creation of his penguin alter-ego, I created an Antarctic avatar of my own, determined to understand the colossal appeal of online  playgrounds. I would spend the next eighteen months (and counting) alongside my school-age children and bazillions of their peers in the trenches of children’s virtual worlds.

Have I lost my mind?  It’s a legitimate question. But honestly (and I know I’m probably in the vast minority on this one) watching children play, interact, and live in virtual worlds has been one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of my professional career. Everything I learned in graduate school about Piaget’s stages of  cognitive development, Erikson’s stages of social-emotional development, and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development is right there – for better and for worse – unfolding before my eyes.

As an educator, I’m amazed by the way kids naturally navigate online play spaces without the slightest hint of instruction.  It’s as if they were born with some kind of internal virtual world GPS that their parents sorely lack.  I love watching children learn the ropes of virtual economies, applying math and money principles; and communicating with one another through reading and writing.  It makes me want to yell from the rooftops of schoolboards, currently cutting technology budgets, that a spoonful of virtual sugar can be just the thing to make a dry academic curriculum go down.

But the true object of my obsession in these new fanged digital playgrounds; the real reason I’ve permanently parked myself in the igloos of Club Penguin, the studios of Stardoll and the mountains of Moshi Monsters is that to me, children’s virtual worlds perfectly capture both the essence and complexity of the 21st century childhood.  As a parenting author, columnist, and speaker whose purpose is helping digital immigrant parents raise happy, healthy, grounded digital native children, I can think of no better place for me to be.

–Sharon

Metaverse Mod Squad, Director of Youth Strategy

www.theundercovermom.com

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