The results section treats the Minecraft and LEGO parts of the project together since despite slight differences, there were many similarities both with the process and the outcomes.
Children’s Connections with LEGO and Minecraft
LEGO and Minecraft were effective in capturing the students’ interest from the start and fostered their active participation through the entire project. For LEGO, all 13 students reported having previous experience—a key factor of their decision to choose LEGO. For Minecraft, only 3 children did not know how to play the video game, while the other 17 all indicated playing regularly. The students’ familiarity with LEGO and Minecraft resulted in a child-led process where they felt comfortable stepping into a leadership role, both with respect to the logistics of the mapping process and the knowledge produced. Jason (aged 12) highlighted:
I worked on the legend and I liked that as I got to make my own choices, like it was my idea to write out the words on the legend using LEGO bricks instead of using paper. I guess I have a lot of LEGO at home so it was easy to work out how to make the best combinations with the bricks.
Both LEGO and Minecraft are rooted in children’s everyday life and as a result, the children rapidly became the “experts” as they had more experience than the researchers and teachers even before the project started. The children using Minecraft advised the researchers and teachers and facilitated the activities of different technical trouble shooting strategies to access Minecraft while within the school.
The tools were accessible to all participants of all levels of experience and ability within the groups. LEGO and Minecraft were also effective in engaging female and male participants equally. Notably, for LEGO, the girls participated more at the beginning when the concepts of hazards, vulnerability, and capacities in the community were defined. The boys were more engaged when the construction began. It was the other way around for Minecraft with the boys more enthusiastic and familiar with playing Minecraft at the start. However, very quickly the girls were hands on mapping and discussing DRR using the video game, participating as much as the boys.
The fact that LEGO and Minecraft are visual, interactive, and easy to use independently of any literacy or numeracy skills, made the process accessible to a wide range of age groups. LEGO also enabled children from a wide range of social skills to actively engage in DRR, because it provided a visual display of how they perceived their hazards, vulnerabilities, and capacities at a community level. Minecraft also saw children with learning difficulties actively engage in gameplay and discussions about DRR, as it opened up a pathway for them to demonstrate their knowledge in a format that was familiar and engaging. However, the results indicate that the age range of the group needs to be carefully considered. Children aged 14 years or older might perceive LEGO as “childish” while for 0–4 years of age it might require fine motor skills that have not been developed yet. With respect to Minecraft, children aged over 11 years might be interested in other video games appropriate to their age. Some of the participants between 11 and 13 years old commented on other games they played more, such as Fortnite or Battle-Royale.
Because LEGO is designed to be put together and pulled apart it also meant students of less experience or of different abilities felt comfortable making mistakes. The same applied to Minecraft where the children could create or undo anything they wanted very easily. This aspect helped encourage the children to take more “risks” and be creative. For example, they could reconstruct a certain area or add new information on the maps such as evacuation points or flood-prone areas. This led to more discussions among themselves, with the children taking ownership of the process, solving problems, and overall discussing intensively their surrounding environment and disaster risk.
The Power of Play
One of the most important aspects that emerged was the playful dimension of the process and its importance in fostering the children’s participation. This was particularly obvious in the assessment done by the children who emphasized that the main strength of the project was that they “got to play with their friends” (Table 1):
“I like playing with LEGO so I thought this would be fun. Then my favorite thing about being in the LEGO group has just being able to play with my friends and create our community. (Stevie, aged 11)
Being able to build their community while playing with their friends and listening to music were central aspects that helped foster the children’s participation in DRR. The children felt like they were “missing out on schoolwork” while also learning from each other about their community, disasters, and risk reduction. The environment created felt different from the normal classroom setting, where generally the structure is more formal with a clear hierarchy between the adult (teacher) and the student (child). Tom (aged 11) emphasized:
All of us are very happy playing together because we are all friends. Also, what I have enjoyed over the project is [the facilitator name] being very encouraging to us and lets us move about to another group if we have finished and another group needs help finishing something else.
The students ranked “working with friends” and “being able to play with LEGO/Minecraft which is something we have at home” as the greatest strengths of the entire project. When trying to get the students to prioritize one over the other, they viewed the two strengths of equal importance. This reiterates the complexity of participation and how several aspects of the process (that is, play and the participants) correlate and encourage participation. While play was a critical aspect raised by the children and in line with the researchers’ field notes, the results show that the children also highly valued “working together” as well as the “final outcome” resulting from such collaboration. Lula (aged 11) commented:
My favorite thing so far has just been building LEGO, cause it’s cool looking at the map as it comes together.
The idea of “seeing the final outcome” was continuously brought up throughout the entire project. That is, the playful dimension of the process was essential to the children’s active participation, but they were also motivated by visualizing their work taking shape and “looking great” (Mason, aged 12). With LEGO there was a sense of pride in completing the map and interacting with the adults about their own interpretation of DRR within their community. For Minecraft, the final outcome was not as visually tangible. However, the multiplayer and virtual aspects of Minecraft meant the children could work together within the game world but also see the potential outcomes of different issues like flooding in different areas, resulting in discussions about how such risks could be managed.
Limitations of the Process
Many of the limitations identified by the students were also limitations that the researchers had identified and documented in the field notes. The students highlighted “not having enough time to make the map look exactly how we wanted it to look” as one of the biggest limitations of the process. To overcome this, the children requested from the school principal to be able to come to the school over the weekend and work together on their LEGO map. While the researchers supported the children’s initiative, this was rejected by the school principal for health and safety reasons. The same occurred with Minecraft with the children asking to complete the map during weekends using the devices from home. This was also rejected, the reason being that the parents would not agree. These refusals emphasize the limitations linked to working in a school environment that restricted a genuine participatory process. But the teachers agreed to extend the number of sessions for both Minecraft and LEGO as well as allowing the children to continue mapping during the lunch break as requested by the children.
Several limitations differed slightly between LEGO and Minecraft. For LEGO the inflexibility of the bricks posed a key challenge. The students would often remark on the hurdles faced throughout the building process in terms of the size, shape, and color of the LEGO bricks. This technical limitation at times affected the students’ enthusiasm, creating frustration to some degree and affecting the playful dimension of the process.
The students also reflected on the limitations of the shape of the bricks that made it difficult to recreate realistic contours in the landscape and the curves of the hills. Ensuring the map looked realistic and true to their setting was important to the children. Jason (aged 12) stated:
When we finished the legend, I helped putting the houses on the hills and helped with the roads. But what I wasn’t that happy with the hills because the bricks aren’t round and they don’t look exactly like the hills.
These limitations identified by the children are important to consider from a researcher and facilitator perspective as they might affect ongoing participation. If the participants are not proud of the final map and how it looks, this might influence their willingness to use the map as a platform to engage in dialogue about DRR with outside stakeholders.
Minecraft posed different limitations and challenges. The main challenge identified by students was about technical issues such as firewalls preventing access to Minecraft, the number of devices available, or the Internet being slow and making the mapping process patchy at times. At the same time, the children were proactive in solving many of the challenges they faced. For example, due to the restrictions of the number of devices that could be connected to the server at one time, 14 devices equal to 14 in-game avatars could collaborate within the world at one time (leading to approximately two children per avatar). This situation posed problems for the facilitators who did not have enough tablets and thought the children would be disengaged. But the children quickly adapted by sharing the devices and working in groups.
The LEGO map was 190 × 114 cm and represents an area of 3.12 × 1.92 km, the community boundaries identified by the 13 children involved. For LEGO the limitation was therefore that some of the children’s houses were outside the mapped area, which somewhat hindered children’s participation. The Minecraft map had the advantage of providing the possibility to go beyond the boundaries defined at the start of the process. However, a limitation lies in the fact that Minecraft requires a tablet, computer, or cell phone to visualize the finished map and the information that goes on it.
Children’s Knowledge and Empowerment
Both the LEGO (Fig. 2) and Minecraft (Figs. 3 and 4) maps provided a visual representation of the students’ knowledge and understanding of their place. They enabled conducting disaster risk assessment, discussing preparedness and evacuation, as well as planning for DRR. The children focused mainly on three main hazards: flood, drought, and wildfire. The Maraekakaho and Ngaruroro Rivers quickly became a focal point for debate. The children discussed their school exposure to flood and identified different households and assets adjacent to the rivers. They commented on certain community members who would be particularly vulnerable such as older people households or younger children in the school. LEGO and Minecraft were useful to locate potential meeting points for the exposed households in preparing for evacuation as well as existing and new escape routes. At the same time, they emphasized that the rivers presented opportunities to evacuate those affected by boat, which is something the adults (teachers, parents) involved in the discussions had not thought about:
Children said stuff and put things on the map that I hadn’t thought of, like that the river was a capacity not just in the summer for putting out scrub fires, but also that you could use it to send jet boats down if the roads were blocked and people needed to evacuate and get into town or vice versa.
With both Minecraft and LEGO, the children emphasized the importance of the surrounding hillside explaining that should the school be flooded it would be a good meeting point to evacuate. They also thought of using the hillside as a preventive measure by evacuating farm animals when bad weather is forecasted:
The farmers are affected like if a flood happens or in the summer time when there is a drought because the animals’ food is affected and that’s how some people make their money. So, people watch the news so they know what weather is coming and they can prepare. They can put the sheep up on the hills so they are safe. (Jennifer, aged 12)
The rural setting with households working in the agriculture or horticulture industry (that is, orchards, vineyards, or sheep and cattle farms) influenced the discussions. The children were very much aware of the devastating impacts natural hazards like drought or wildfires can have on community members’ income (most of them being farmers) and the need to prepare and have risk-reduction mechanisms in place. The LEGO and Minecraft maps also fostered discussions on the importance of certain resources and assets during disaster— such as, the fire station, community hall, telecommunication systems, and so on—and planning accordingly. For example, students using Minecraft recognized that the fire station was a critical resource in the face of disaster, and commented upon the movement of the fire station from its old location in a flood-prone area near the western side of the Maraekakaho River, to its new location in their school carpark following the 2007 flood (Fig. 5). This led to the children questioning different disaster planning decisions made in their community. They queried the appropriateness of the location of the rubbish station in a flood-prone area on the eastern side of the Maraekakaho River bridge, when this could potentially create health and environmental hazards should it be flooded. The children using Minecraft also discussed how the memorial is known as a meeting point to evacuate should a flood happen. However, they critiqued this decision arguing it is in a flood-prone area and labelled the memorial as such in Minecraft.
One of the original goals was to enable the children, with the help of LEGO and Minecraft, to have a dialogue and take part in the decision making with outside stakeholders (for example, local council and adults) about disaster preparedness. However, this proved difficult in practice. The local practitioner and local people were somewhat impressed with the finished maps, including how much knowledge and understanding of disaster risk the children had about their own community. Yet, this did not seem to translate into empowerment through decision making involving children and adults. The reluctance from the local council and community members to use Minecraft and LEGO as tools for decision making did not seem linked to the tools themselves, but seemed to be a consequence of their perceptions of children and their capacity to engage in discussion about DRR in the local community. However, we did not conduct interviews with the local practitioners nor with other adults to gather their viewpoints to understand why this was the case.