The surprising benefits of video games for kids

It might just look like a fun waste of time, but playing video games can teach your kid all sorts of valuable skills.

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Last school year, nine-year-old Elijah did something his family would never have expected: he got up in front of the whole school and danced in the talent show. Never mind that the moves were inspired by victory dances that take place in the video game Fortnite. “If it wasn’t for his friend putting this together, Elijah never would have been in a talent show,” says his mom, Narie Ju-Hong, who adds that all his male classmates, even the very shy ones, voluntarily agreed to participate in the dance.

Video games have influenced Ju-Hong’s family, including six-year-old Claire, in other positive ways. For example, they play the dance competition game Just Dance multiple times a week, and compete for who has the best dance moves. “You actually work up a sweat,” adds Ju-Hong.

While console-based games, like Nintendo and PlayStation, have been popular with kids for decades, tablets, smart phones and computers have made screen-based electronic games more accessible and affordable than ever. Exact numbers for Canadian kids aren’t available, but research in the United States from 2011 found 91 per cent of American kids play video games—and that was before tablets were popular.

If video games aren’t already part of your family’s life, it’s likely only a matter of time before your kid asks about Minecraft, a game in which you use blocks to create worlds and beat challenges. Fortnite, a third-person, multi-player shooter game, is also popular, though more controversial (and one that Ju-Hong’s son isn’t actually allowed to play yet, despite being familiar with the dance moves).

But between articles circulating about the potential for addiction and the common worry that video games will bring out violent behaviour, it can be tempting to issue a house-wide ban on this form of entertainment. In reality, that’s probably not needed. You’ll likely want to hold off on certain games due to violence until your kids are older, but not all video games need to be locked away until your kid’s eighteenth birthday. It turns out that with moderation and supervision, video games could actually be a positive influence in your kid’s life.

The positives of video games

While video games have the potential to offer kids a range of benefits, one of the strongest is around helping them develop their sense of self. “They can give kids a sense of competence, connection and autonomy that really boosts their self-esteem,” says Michelle Ponti, a London, ON-based paediatrician and chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s digital health task force. “What might just look like a fun waste of time to parents can actually be teaching kids valuable life skills including problem solving, how to make and take ownership of choices and how to control their own behaviours and goals.” Some games, generally those that are multi-player, even have the potential to teach kids empathy, due to the shared experienced of completing the game together, explains Ponti.

Jennifer Turliuk, CEO of MakerKids, a Toronto-based company that offers STEM-oriented camps, classes and parties, says she likes to use video games to teach skills like conflict resolution. For example, in Minecraft, players can sometimes—accidentally or otherwise —build on each other’s land or even destroy each other’s creations. While this has the potential for meltdowns when you’re dealing with grade schoolers, with the right guidance from adults, these incidents can be teachable moments on how to talk (or type) through conflict. Turliuk has then watched these skills be applied away from the screen, for example, when a summer camp group is taken to the park.

The interactive aspect of some games can also be beneficial for kids who struggle with face-to-face social interactions. “Online communication can sometimes be a lot easier for socially anxious kids,” notes Ponti. She adds that while real-life world interactions are crucial in this instance, online gaming can be a great space for these kids to practice social skills.

Video games and STEM skills

Video games can also benefit a kid academically. Executive functioning skills like paying attention, planning and organizing, can also be nurtured by certain games. “Some games are quite intricate and really require you to plan ahead,” says Ponti.

Research out of Europe that surveyed the parents and teachers of over 3,000 kids age six to 11 (and also included a self-assessment by the kids) found that children who played video games for five or more hours a week were likely to have better intellectual functioning and academic achievement and fewer problems with their peers. (It also failed to find a negative connection between playing video games and mental health concerns.)

“Games can also help kids build skills in coding, math, logic, design,” says Turliuk. She notes that besides the obvious route of a career in gaming (the eSports market is estimated to surpass $1 billion in worldwide revenue this year while in Canada, the video game industry contributed $3.7 billion to our economy in 2017), video games can be the “first-point of contact towards careers in computer programming, engineering, design.” And considering that STEM careers are among the most in-demand, and highest paid around, playing video games could literally pay off big time for your kid.

Moderation is key

boy and girl watch screens on the couch The Canadian Paediatric Society has released surprising new screen time rulesWhile video games have the potential to be a positive influence in your kid’s life, Ponti is quick to note that children don’t need to play them. This is particularly true for kids under five. Canadian screen time recommendations say kids ages two to four should have less than an hour of screen time a day, and that it should be avoided altogether for kids under two.

The biggest problem with any form of screen time is that it can displace other activities kids need to grow up strong and healthy. Ponti notes that after your kid has attended school, met their personal needs including bathing and eating, and gotten the recommended amount of sleep and physical activity, they may only have an hour or less of free time available.

“Video gaming and screen time are a privilege that is to be earned after those other healthy activities have been completed,” says Ponti.

It’s also important to be involved in your kids’ digital lives—including knowing what they are playing and when—and to familiarize yourself with the parental and privacy controls associated with the systems and games your child uses. The tech that allows for social benefits of multi-player games can also put your children at risk of exposure to hateful language, inappropriate images and even online predators. “Don’t allow kids to play with anonymous users,” says Turliuk. Thankfully, most online, multi-player games allow you to set up private profiles and restrict interactions to only playing with other known, approved accounts. (YouTube has tutorials for setting those up.)

Signs that your kid might need less (or even no) video game time include having trouble turning the game off, acting out following the end of a gaming session, complaining about being bored or unhappy when not gaming or if you find that gaming interferes with your child’s ability to sleep, eat or—super-importantly—socialize in real life.

Best types of video games for kids

Ready to allow video games into your child’s life but feeling a little overwhelmed by all the options out there? Ponti recommends starting with what your kid is interested in (Sports? Fantasy? Puzzles?), then talking to other parents to learn what they allow in their household and what pitfalls they’ve encountered. While Ponti doesn’t recommend one specific technology over another, note that for younger children, transitioning away from a device can be particularly problematic, meaning any device that you can’t easily monitor, such as a tablet, might lead to more clashes than a TV-based gaming system, where you can more easily spot a potential transition point.

She encourages games that involve multiple players and that encourage movement as part of their game play, or that might inspire kids to get outside and play a sport. “What we don’t want are kids sitting alone in a basement, by themselves.”

You can check out Common Sense Media, for an updated look at some of the best games out there for kids as well as in-depth reviews on games for all ages. Ponti says Media Smarts is a great Canadian resource for all digital and media literacy and notes the Canadian Paediatric Society also has online resources.

Before purchasing or downloading any game, review the product’s rating. Almost all console and computer game are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board and for kids under 10, you’ll want to look for an “E for Everyone.” Tablet and smart phone games are also often rated however these can be heavily influenced by the game’s developer, so it’s best for you to actually play those games before you let your kids have access.

Turliuk is a big fan of Minecraft, which she notes is even used in classrooms around the world. In addition to potentially inspiring kids’ interest in STEM topics, the game is great at teaching essential computer skills. While we tend to think of modern kids as tech-savvy, Turliuk says, “A lot of kids these days don’t know how to type or use a mouse.” With Minecraft, kids are forced to do such basic tasks as typing and using folders, skills that are crucial for post-secondary and white-collar careers. For this same reason, you may want to consider giving your kids access to games that are played on a laptop or desktop.

In Ju-Hong’s household, her kids have access to tablets, but her son’s favourite system is by far his Nintendo Switch, due to its ability to connect him to his friends. The Switch also links to the TV, allowing for the family’s Just Dance sessions and making it a device that Ju-Hong recommends for others. The gaming system is also Common Sense Media’s top pick for families with pre-tween kids, because of its social nature and strong parental controls.

As for her son’s video game-inspired dance, it received the biggest cheers of all of the performances at the talent show. It also gave Ju-Hong another reason to cheer on video games and their surprisingly beneficial impacts.

Read more:
4 parent-tested systems you can use to limit screen time
How I got my toddler back on books after she got a taste of screen time

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