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I’ve seen a lot recently about virtual worlds and virtual learning environments and their possible benefits for learning and the development of academic and social skills. I’d like to explore these tools in my classroom, but I’m not sure where to find appropriate ones for younger students. Can you suggest some virtual worlds or similar online activities?

Many schools and teachers are beginning to think about how to harness their students’ innate interest in gaming for educational purposes. With the popularity of virtual worlds like Second Life, many companies (including the makers of Second Life) have set about to create similar platforms appropriate for a younger audience. Virtual worlds and simulations for kids represent a continuum of educational benefits. Some are clearly designed for educators, or with educational purposes in mind. Others are designed more for entertainment value than educational merit, and still others fall somewhere between the two.

If this is your first foray into using these types of technologies in your classroom, you may want to stick to strictly educational sites such as Whyville(opens in a new window) or Secret Builders(opens in a new window). Generally, such sites will have pages dedicated to teachers and may even include lesson plan ideas or activities for your classroom.

For much younger students, check out PBS Kids Island(opens in a new window). It isn’t a ‘virtual world’ in the technical sense, but it does introduce students to the concept of another world where they can complete activities, challenges, and earn ‘tickets’ to use towards prizes. Just because a virtual world isn’t necessarily designed for education doesn’t mean it can’t be used in your classroom, but it may mean you need to use it creatively.

Second Life(opens in a new window) didn’t initially start out for classroom use, but many(opens in a new window) educators(opens in a new window) have found ways(opens in a new window) to build it into their teaching(opens in a new window). For older kids, check out Teen Second Life(opens in a new window) or Free Realms(opens in a new window). Other popular entertainment-based websites, like Club Penguin(opens in a new window) or Tootsville(opens in a new window), may be places your students already spend a lot of time. Though they are generally for ‘fun’ you can certainly find ways to incorporate some of the activities into your lessons. For example, players must generally earn in-world money by playing games or completing activities, and these can be good ways to teach students early skills for adding, budgeting, and planning.

Additionally, these sites allow chatting with online friends and have a clearly outlined code of online conduct, so they can be a good way to begin teaching young kids about online safety and etiquette. These sites may also be good recommendations for parents to explore at home with their children.

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