The presence of violence in video games is well publicized in the news. Games that spew blood and boast shoot-em-up violence make their way to the front of the public’s line of view. It is obvious that some video games are inappropriate for young children. But as a result, some well-meaning parents dismiss video games altogether for their children as something that has nothing to offer.
The fact is that many video games can offer an enriching, even educational experience for children. In today’s high-tech world, it is clear that the more comfortable your child is with technology, the better equipped he or she will be to stay on top of the fast-moving tech world. But what can a parent do to help make gaming an enriching and worthwhile experience?
Get Involved with the Gaming Experience
A survey by AOL and AP found that 40% of parents leave their children alone to play with video games. Of those that do play video games with their children, 30% play with them for less than an hour per week. That means a large majority of parents are not taking part in their children’s interests. Getting involved in what your child is doing in front of a video game can be beneficial.
Colin Wilkinson, Design Group Manager at game development studio 1st Playable Productions says, “Just like reading a book with your child and discussing the characters and story, children may appreciate help interpreting the games they play and enjoy a chance to talk about their likes and dislikes.” He adds, “Games can help growing children question and critically think about the world around them and their place within it.”
But what can a child learn from video games? Wilkinson explains that on the most basic level, video games teach simple motor control and hand-eye coordination. He adds that, for a preschooler, “age-appropriate games have a variety of learning benefits including facial and location recognition, speech and literary skills, proper social and moral decision making, and even leadership skills.”
Finding the best games for your child can be a challenge for parents. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, has a system designed to warn parents of games with inappropriate content for different age levels. A rating is listed on the box of each video game to indicate the age of the child it is most appropriate for. But a system like this can only go so far in helping a parent determine what is best for their children. “Play with them,” Wilkinson says. “There's no better judge of content for a child than those close to him or her. While the ESRB and similar ratings lay a good groundwork, they should be built upon by a parent or guardian.” In addition, the ESRB does not rate games on their ability to provide educational material. That’s where a parent must step in.
Finding Educational Video Games
A 2009 study found that children who play educational video games were less likely to develop attention problems in school. Children who played arcade-like, or violent video games were more likely to develop attention problems in school. And why would a child be likely to develop attention problems in school? One reason could be an anxiety about learning and a feeling that the content is unfamiliar. Victoria Van Voorhis, CEO of educational media company Second Ave. Software explains, “Research shows that children learn from play, and educational video games are another medium for play. These games provide a safe place to explore concepts without the pressure of an academic environment or formal assessment.”
For children 3 to 5 years old, finding games with an EC, or Early Childhood rating is a good place to a start. These games often use recognizable characters that children are familiar with. Many teach concepts that are part of the preschool curriculum, such as letter, number, and color recognition. Still others go a step further and teach phonics or basic math skills. As with anything, however, buyer beware. Wilkinson says, “It can be too easy to classify a game as educational. Education certainly comes in many forms, but very few titles, especially for young learners, are intended to be completely self-directed.”
You cannot expect to hand your child a video game and have him or her to come out of the experience reading or understanding math concepts. We know that a book can be an educational tool in your child’s classroom, but the teacher is still indispensable. Similarly, an educational video game can have a lot to offer a child, but a parent provides the child with the core learning structure.
“Expect to spend time working with the game and the child,” says Wilkinson. “If possible, look at online reviews from other parents, or from established and well-known educational institutions,” says Wilkinson. You may find good learning experiences from unexpected sources. “Don't overlook great titles with learning value that don't happen to be labeled as educational on the packaging.” Some games for older children and teens involve problem-solving skills and have a basis in physics.
An introduction to educational games at a young age can make children more interested in games that make them think as they get older. And remember to work with your child and come up with video game choices together. The main idea is to introduce learning in a fun way.