In a classroom in Ruffner Hall, dozens of children sat at workstations, the familiar pixelated Minecraft landscape in front of them. Instructors milled around, helping those with a bit less experience. More than a few parents sat with their children, interacting in a way they perhaps never have before.

On each screen, a familiar story—the three little pigs—began to take shape. Each child brought his or her imagination and creativity to the world of the pigs and wolf. And in the children’s minds, the story began to take on more meaning.

These are the kinds of moments program organizers hope will become more frequent in homes and schools around the state.

The children were at Longwood for the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, held on Longwood’s campus Oct. 16-17. Dozens of people attended the Reluctant Readers: Using Minecraft to Encourage Reading panel and seats filled up for the hands-on workshops that brought the innovative approach to life.

At first, it’s a marriage of concepts that doesn’t seem to fit naturally: reading and computer games. But when trying to reach reluctant readers, who aren’t interested in sitting down with books, sometimes its best to engage where their interests lie.

In some statewide schools, the approach has paid dividends. Rebecca Thomas, leads the library at Woodbrooke Elementary School in Albemarle County, one of the most innovative and technologically savvy libraries in the state. She helped lead the VCBF workshops, and there met Angela Jester ’13, a librarian in Chesterfield County.

"We talked about shaking up some of the entrenched views that persist in so many school systems, and how our particular Minecraft program got off the ground and has really started to reach students on another level," said Thomas.

"At times, it’s like children aren’t living in the same world as their parents," said Dr. Karen Richardson, executive director of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education, who led the sessions. "But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s imperative that educators and parents meet kids on their level when it comes to reading. We’re seeing a lot of parents start to sit up and think about how computers and video games can serve a dual purpose: education and entertainment. The more parents and teachers are open to that perspective, the more students will become readers."

Many parents are familiar with Minecraft—the extremely popular computer program that challenges users to create their own universe using only rudimentary blocks. It’s not often that Minecraft and reading go hand-in-hand, but by pairing gameplay with books, drawing, writing and discussion, parents, teachers and librarians can give children one more opportunity to engage with literature.

A scene with a character and a pig created in Minecraft. Credit: Joe Towles
A scene with a character and a pig created in Minecraft. Credit: Joe Towles

The program was conceived and brought to life by Dr. Mary Jo Stockton, a member of the VCBF advisory board and longtime volunteer, based on her own experiences raising a son who’s a reluctant reader.

"My son loves technology, and he’s never been interested in sitting down and reading lots of books," said Stockton. "It became very apparent that in order for him to get all the benefits of reading, I needed to marry technology and books. So many other parents are in the same position I was in—and you feel like you’re navigating uncharted waters. That’s why sessions like these can give parents and educators the tools to really make a difference."

"This is exactly the kind of innovative program the Virginia Children’s Book Festival is becoming known for," said Juanita Giles, director. "Children naturally have a diverse set of interests and skills, and not everyone can sit down and pick up a book. It’s up to adults to unlock the world of reading for them by reaching out and connecting with their interests. It’s just as important for parents to understand how to connect with reluctant readers, and this panel discussion provided some real practical advice on how to do that."

Studies show enormous benefits to children who read at grade level by third grade. Those students who fall behind their peers on that important benchmark have significantly lower high-school graduation rates and career earnings. That’s why, for the VCBF, reaching even the most reluctant readers is so important.

About the 2015 Virginia Children’s Book Festival

The Virginia Children’s Book festival is a two-day event held each fall that celebrates and encourages reading by youth of all ages. Hundreds of children and teens come from throughout the commonwealth to meet, learn and explore with some of the country’s most popular and acclaimed authors. Launched in 2014, the VCBF is held on the picturesque campus of Longwood University, a liberal arts institution in Farmville, the heart of Virginia, and one of the hundred oldest colleges in the U.S. Already one of Virginia’s premier literary events, the VCBF continues to grow and inspire children of all ages.

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