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Esports and Neurodiversity

Even though we are delayed by the coronavirus, we are happy to announce our next winner of the Esports EDU Lab Starter Kit: Frances Amato. Please take a look at what is to come for Frances Amato and New York City District 75, and how esports and game-based learning are implemented for neurodiverse students with autism and other learning differences.

Tell us a little about yourself, your educational path, what you’re doing currently.

I am a STEM-based science teacher in New York City's District 75. This district is a cohort of many schools across our city and has the highest amount of special needs students. Currently, I serve as an ed tech model teacher and mentor. I love all types of educational technology. I am a doctoral candidate in PhD program. My program is educational technology and design, and I am currently writing my dissertation based on technology acceptance of educators. I am hoping in the future to become a school administrator to support students in an even greater fashion.

What inspired you to pursue esports in education?

I believe my students deserve every opportunity to learn and grow. Many of my students do not have the ability to join teams or to go out and play sports. I believe esports is an excellent mixture of educational technology and sports for my students to learn how to work together as a team. Many of my students have a great passion for video games, which is why I'm bringing an esports team to my school. We do not have a playground or area for children to have recess, so esports can provide a great opportunity to build student engagement and retention of skills. By blending online and offline experiences, my students can find their passion and interest to best support preparing students for future STEM careers.

What are your goals for your program, and how are you going to implement the esports starter kit?

The goal of my program is to create a club for students to use the gamification of esports as a way of learning and growing. This will be implemented during our daily lunch period; we will do a short lunch and then work with the esports kits during the second half. Edtech is educational, and it will add another piece to the puzzle for my students. I believe the club will harness the passion of students and the love of video games, thereby finding its home in education. I also love and play video games, and I hope to show my students all of the opportunities that can arise from esports.

What do you foresee as some of the challenges behind starting this program?

One challenge is how to appropriately teach students the skills they need to play esports. Some of my students have fine motor issues and may have a hard time holding the controllers. I've already been thinking of ways we can make adaptable equipment so all of our students can take a turn. Also, some of my students have a hard time waiting and don't have the social skills to know when it is their turn. So, I predict this might be another struggle; children might become upset when they have to wait their turn or have a turn end. Another challenge is finding a place where we can play together. We have our club at lunchtime and, generally, kids are in the lunchroom. I do not have my own classroom, as space is quite limited within my school. I need to find a classroom space to further engage in this type of learning.

What are some challenges students with autism and learning differences face?

Children with autism often face many struggles. A lot of them have cognitive issues, which can result in problems with paying attention and concentration. Many of our students have speech and language difficulties and require the assistance of a teacher when communicating their wants and needs. Other common problems are anxiety and depression, as well as not having age-appropriate age social skills. Children with autism are also often rigid and very structured, and they tend to have obsessive behaviors, activities, and interests. Through the gamification of learning, a lot of these issues can be supported. For example, while they're playing a video game, students don't have to necessarily talk with others because the characters represent them. This allows them to connect with other people and is one of the biggest advantages of gamification. Through learning, neurodiverse students are given access to their peers.

For students with learning differences, what does game-based learning provide that traditional schoolwork cannot?

Children with learning differences are some of the major beneficiaries of digital tools for learning. Many teachers still use traditional means to educate their students, such as filling out worksheets or doing small group activities. This type of rote learning becomes monotonous for neurodiverse children. Video games and the gamification of learning is engaging; it promotes increased opportunities for students to learn and continue to practice inside and outside of the classroom. Students build their perseverance because they're motivated to try and try again. These tools often have built-in features that enables students to feel supported. It also allows them to do things in a virtual space that they otherwise could not. These games avoid repetitive drills and skills methods, and they often control the pace of what is being taught so it's more appropriate to their needs. Overall, it is an extremely engaging way to learn and promotes a love of learning.

What is your advice for teachers who are just starting to dig into esports and gaming for education?

Don't be afraid to try it out because you never know what you will find or how well this can motivate your students. If you incorporate something they love into their school day, that can be very powerful.

What are you most excited about now that you have the kit?

I am most excited to take the gamification of learning to the next level. I can't wait to see how happy my students will be to have a one of their most motivating interests incorporated into school.

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