Animal Jam is a virtual world in which animal characters (the players are called "jammers") can explore different worlds and interact with other jammers by chatting or sending "jam-o-grams", attending parties and trading virtual toys and plushies they have won or purchased using "gems" in one of the game's many online "stores".
One of the most interesting aspects for me to observe has been how the boys have dealt with the problem of communication: Three language levels exist in the game -- those with free accounts can only choose from a limited set of pre-selected phrases with which to communicate with other gamers. Paying members can type, but in the interest of "protection and safety" (the game is aimed at children), only certain words are permissible, unless "free chat" is enabled (this requires a phone conversation with the good people at National Geographic Kids' head office; we don't have a phone down here, so....) This means that words like "trade" and "one" are not available to Alex and Simon as they interact with other Jammers.
Since trading is such a big part of play, participants have developed a new, needs-based vocabulary, and Simon and Alex's immersion into this online culture has quickly equipped them with the needed language: The boys recently explained to me that "everybody knows that 'ones' means you want one of something, and 'tradition' means you want to trade"!
How intriguing that after nearly a year in a foreign country, the boys still only have about a handful of phrases in Spanish, but within three weeks of beginning Animal Jam play, both Alex and Simon have begun to master that whole new language!
They've also shared with me tricks and shortcuts for getting free stuff or upgrades, and for avoiding online "scammers". The motivation for them to develop fluency in their new online world is high, and it has definitely impacted their ability to learn quickly and well.
The implications for classroom teaching are obvious: When students are motivated, they naturally collaborate to effectively to solve problems independently and fairly quickly.
As a teacher, I'm already thinking forward to next year and how I can facilitate a classroom environment that is rich in authentic problem-solving opportunities to motivate my future students!