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Education is Child’s Play

Nolan Bushnell’s solution for the nation’s schools starts with playing games

He fathered the video game industry in 1974 with the creation of Atari, one of the most successful entries ever in the consumer electronics market. Thirty-seven years later, after an impressive list of other breakthrough ventures, Nolan Bushnell, dad to eight and grandfather to three (Sadie 3; Rumiah, 8; and Kaden, 11), is on a crusade to transform the way kids learn. “I want to fix education in the world. As soon as I work on that, I’m going to work on world hunger and then world peace,” he recently exclaimed with characteristic bravado at an industry conference.

Although he admits to using hyperbole to make his point, the outspoken critic of elementary and secondary education does not temper his passion for integrating technology and game playing into the curriculum to help kids learn better and faster. He calls it “edutainment.”

“The present system is not student centric,” he told GRAND during a recent interview. “Bad teachers have to be fixed. To force children to be in a classroom with a bad teacher is a form of child abuse.”

GRAND: But shouldn’t parents and grandparents be concerned about the inordinate amount of time kids spend playing electronic games?

Nolan: Absolutely. Although the evidence shows that games are very good for brain development, too much does squeeze out other healthy experiences. Kids are missing wonderful parenting time. I encourage parents to limit game playing to no more than 15 minutes each hour and to find ways to encourage family conversation.

GRAND: As a grandfather, what is your greatest responsibility to your grandchildren?

Nolan: One thing grandparents have that kids don’t is perspective that comes with time and experience. Kids need to learn from their grandparents. And I think many lessons are better coming from grandparents because there’s less push back. Grandparents are of the family but not in the family.

GRAND: You’ve been a successful innovator most of your adult life. What competencies do you believe your grandkids will need to live purposeful, productive lives?

Nolan: Above all else, creative problem solving. If you were to place today’s kids into a recently discovered colony of aliens on Mars, could they figure out how to survive? Chances are, that Martian colony is a lot like what life on earth will be like in 25 years. Now is the time to get ready for a future that will bear little resemblance to the past. Which brings me back to education because it’s the key to solving all of our problems. The experts are now saying that IQ determines only 30 percent of a person’s capacity to learn. Brain flexibility can be taught. You can make yourself smarter.

GRAND: If you had only one minute to give your grandchildren the benefit of your life experience, what would you say to them?

Nolan: Be happy, work hard and be willing to embrace the unknown. Figure out new things and create them. I want them to adopt the existentialist philosophy that the journey is the reward. That’s been my approach. Find a better way and get excited about new ideas and approaches.

GRAND: How will you know you’ve been successful in disrupting the education system in this country?

Nolan: I think I have already been successful because my ideas are starting to show up in the lexicon. Good ideas are infective. I’m proving that I can teach a full year of high school in three months, freeing up the rest of the time to learn skills students can use to make a living. I want to show that not all kids have to go to college to be able to make a good living.

GRAND: Any final thoughts?

Nolan: Yes. Keep in mind that we are all smarter than any one of us.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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