With most toys we buy our kids, we worry that they might not play with them enough. With video games, we worry that they’ll play too much! My six-year-old grandson, Sebastian, can be completely mesmerized by the on-screen action, oblivious to the rest of the world. That can’t be a good thing, can it?
And what about the bloodthirsty and violent aspects? Or the lack of physical exercise when kids spend hours moving only their thumbs on the controller?
Is there a positive side to these games?
The short answer: yes. “We have this image of video games as mainly “shoot-em-up” or “role-playing” games with lots of violence, but in reality there are many different kinds of games,” says Kathy Sanford, a professor of education at the University of Victoria. “Some games are not at all suitable for younger children, but many are very interactive and enjoyable, and they can learn a lot by playing them.”
The game designers seem to have taken the concerns about kids being inactive to heart, and have come out with new games, such as Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Fit, that promote activity. “In our studies, we’ve observed that kids tend to play for a long time and really work up a sweat,” says Sanford. “We also found that the various sports games let parents and kids play together, each at a different level, which makes it more of a fun family activity as well as exercise.”
Marc Prensky, author of Don’t Bother Me Mom — I’m Learning!, feels even more strongly. “Kids are really learning a lot when they play these games, and they’re learning things that are not taught in school. They learn to solve problems, take risks and evaluate the outcomes, and to work with others to accomplish a goal, and they learn these things in a way that’s interesting and painless.”
Learning at play
Play is, of course, one of the best ways to learn, especially for children. Sanford points out that the games give the children immediate feedback when they make a mistake, and give them another opportunity right away to try another approach. “In school, if you make a mistake on a test, for example, you don’t get any feedback until much later, and even then you usually don’t get a chance to do it over,” she says.
Many parents think of the games as isolating — we have this image of a child playing all alone in a dark basement — but Sanford’s studies have found the opposite. “Kids like to play together, and they take turns and help each other as they play,” she says.
Prensky thinks the reason so many parents are negative about games is because they don’t play them and so worry about what they don’t know. “If a child is reading a book and has a question about something in the story, or the parent is concerned about the content — no worries, the parent can read the book and respond. But when it’s a game, the parents often don’t know how to play it so they don’t know how to find the answer to any concerns.”
Parents also worry that their children are so absorbed and mesmerized by the games. Prensky thinks that demonstrates how effective the games are at engaging children: “They’re concentrating and solving problems. We worry that our children have short attention spans, yet they can play these games for hours with complete focus.”
The fact that there is a good side to gaming doesn’t mean there isn’t a downside too. Sanford points out that some games are violent and over-the-top for young children. So are some books and TV shows. “We don’t get rid of violence by banning video games,” she says. “It’s part of life.” Parents can, though, be selective about the games they provide for their kids. It’s also reasonable to put some limits on how much time is spent on these games to make sure there’s enough time in your child’s day for all the other activities he needs to fit in.
Sanford also encourages parents to talk to their children about the games they play. “Ask them what they like about them, and what they think they’re learning. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.”
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