Green spaces modelled in Minecraft

The Teats Hill Minecraft project was a joint project that came out of DATA Play 4 between Leigh Cooper (@leighcoopa) and Lucy Knight (@Jargonautical). Lucy and Leigh proposed to investigate how green spaces modelled in Minecraft could increase engagement with the outdoors.

Leigh Cooper talks about how the project came about, what happened with the project and how they hope to use it in the future.

The inspiration

Recent innovative educational research has shown that Minecraft, the sandbox video game, can increase interactivity with real-life spaces through modelling them in a virtual space. Additionally, Minecraft has recently become a creative tool to promote understanding and engagement in real world ecological issues such as deforestation and climate change.

Minecraft achieves this with a unique ecological system that includes: a wide range of animal and bird life (including bees and butterflies) and plant life (including trees and flowers), that can subsequently shape a variety of custom made forestry/conservation projects.

This project aimed to utilise Minecraft, and the research behind it, to encourage school students at Prince Rock Primary School, to engage and interact with an outdoor green space (Teats Hill) and address current ecological issues.

The project

We produced a workshop that could be taken and implemented across multiple schools. It served as a pilot project to provide insights into how this scheme might be upscaled for wider applications. The project included two phases, a field trip workshop and a Minecraft workshop.

Data was collected in the form of anonymous questionnaires and observations before and after each phase. This was to ensure that the project adhered to evidence-based methods, allowing us to measure the effectiveness of the project. A group of 10 students (aged 9 to 10) took part in both phases of this project. The two phases are outlined below:

The field trip

The first phase of the project involved a field trip to Teats Hill park (the chosen green zone). This workshop lasted three hours from 12pm to 3pm.

The students engaged in ecological surveying activities that allowed them to observe and note down what was in and around the area, including animals, types of habitats, plants, and play equipment. One of the main focuses of this surveying task, was to note down what the students would do to improve the area of Teats Hill.

Students were asked to fill in small tally charts for the type of species/habitats they observed. Additionally, qualitative data on the suggested improvements to Teats Hill were collected through verbal interviews and focus groups with the students.

The students also took part in a marine habitat activity that involved them learning about the different marine species in the UK’s oceans and coasts. This also included exploring the rock pools around Teats Hill and discovering the variety of wildlife that live there. This activity was put together and led by a member of the Marine Biological Association (MBA), Eliane Bastos.

The intention of this phase was to allow the students to learn and explore the ecosystem of Teats Hill and ask the question ‘What could we improve?’. Engaging the students in this intrinsic manner was hypothesised to increase the likelihood of them exploring Teats Hill independently in the future.

The workshop

The final phase of the project involved a Minecraft workshop, where the students explored a virtual reconstruction of Teats Hill park (inside of Minecraft). This workshop took place at Prince Rock Primary School inside of their IT suite. The workshop lasted three hours from 9am to 12pm.

The students were given a number of tasks that they could choose to tackle, but they were also encouraged to explore the Minecraft world independently. The tasks included:

  • encouraging bee colonies to thrive and produce honey
  • constructing playground equipment
  • building a galleon
  • harvesting/growing wild vegetables/flowers

During this workshop, the students were reminded of the observations they made during the field trip workshop and told that they could use that information to influence the Minecraft version of Teats Hill. Questionnaires were filled in before and after the workshop session to gather feedback on the student’s experience, their thoughts on Teats Hill and what they learnt from the workshops.

The outcomes

There were two main issues we wanted to address with this project – to encourage students to engage with green spaces and to spark interest in current ecological issues.

Emerging themes

To gain some insight into these issues, we performed thematic analysis on the data collected during the project. Thematic analysis involves collating the data into identifiable groups to examine observable patterns. We did this in order to examine how the students interacted with the project and what parts of the project the students preferred.

From their responses and our observations, we grouped the students into four themes:

  • Explorer: Students showed high levels of curiosity and exploration inside of Minecraft and at Teats Hill
  • Builder: Interested in constructing buildings, objects, and structures inside of Minecraft. Focused on the creation side of Minecraft
  • Engineer: Students that displayed interest in the Minecraft mods (windmills, renewable energy etc.) and tinkering with more advanced tools
  • Conservationist: Students that learnt and interacted with the wildlife inside of Minecraft and in Teats Hill. This involved planting flowers and caring for bee hives

The insights

Insights from themes

There are two points to take away from these themes stated above. Firstly it is clear that our sample of 10 students had varying interests when it came to exploring Minecraft and Teats Hill. As a result, this presents an opportunity to tailor another future project to fit these wants and needs. For instance, creating another virtual park in Minecraft and establishing specific tasks for the students to perform that would nurture and encourage their exploring, building, engineering, and/or conservation interests. By doing this, it is possible to foster individual intrinsic motivation towards learning about ecological issues and local green spaces.

Secondly these themes emerged from the data collected during the field trip workshop and the Minecraft workshop. Hence, we have supported the idea that a student’s interests in the real world, overlap into the realm of simulated worlds. This further supports the validity of using Minecraft as an educational tool in classrooms, to address important factors relating to the real world.

Impact of a virtual world

As previously stated, we focused on a number of tasks during the Minecraft workshop to encourage interaction with the Minecraft version of Teats Hill and promote curiosity in nature. These tasks included caring for bee hives, planting wild flowers, building playground equipment, and creating a galleon. The data collected showed that these tasks were very successful in getting the students to think, learn, and explore.

For instance, when asked the question “What was the best thing you learnt from playing Minecraft today?” one student replied “I really liked learning about the bee hives. I liked checking them every now and then”. Additionally, when asked the question “What was your favourite thing to do in Minecraft?” one student responded “I like making the slide and shelter” whilst another student answered “build new things and see new things”.

This exemplifies the use of Minecraft as an educational tool and an instrument in promoting local green spaces. Minecraft allows you to exhibit a local green space from novel perspectives, allowing individuals to interact with it in different ways thus, promoting curiosity in that space.

In terms of promoting footfall to Teats Hill, when asked “Would you like to go back to Teats Hill after exploring it in Minecraft?” a significant majority of the students replied “Yes”. A similar response was also received when asking the question “Would you like to explore Teats Hill again inside of Minecraft?”. Again, this illustrates how powerful Minecraft is; it sparks curiosity in children and allows them to discover real-world topics and concepts through a different process.

Reflecting on Teats Hill trip

During the Minecraft workshop we observed a variety of student behaviours that reflected their observations from the field trip workshop. For instance, one student was keen to implement various sea-life in the Minecraft world (crabs, sea gulls etc.); which is something we discussed and observed at the real-life Teats Hill. Other examples of this manifested itself in planting wild flowers and caring for bee colonies; as students mentioned that they would like to see more examples of wild flowers and insects in Teats Hill.

All of these behaviours can be seen in the Minecraft screen shots below. This demonstrates that the majority of students are interested in their local green spaces and that there is a great opportunity to transfer these behaviours, from virtual worlds to the real-life green space. Encouraging students to consider real problems and find solutions for virtual wildlife and green spaces, also fosters intrinsic motivation to engage in these areas.

Looking ahead…

We are hoping to run the project again, using more sessions of Minecraft and green space field trips alongside focus groups with students and even parents to gather more insights into using Minecraft as a tool and to see the long term effects of the project.

24 April 2019


About the author: Leigh Cooper is the founder of NudgeUp – a team of researchers, psychologists and designers that all share the same vision – to create design that helps using a cutting-edge method, taken from the behavioural sciences, that can alter an individual’s choices by changing the design and layout of their environment.