Video games often get a bad rap. They're blamed for rotting young brains, contributing to childhood obesity, and exposing kids to violence. Some of those complaints are probably justified, but as I handle game coverage here at Parents, I'm seeing more and more high quality educational entertainment come through—and it seems as though many of these games could really have a positive impact on the lives of children.
To get an expert's opinion, I spoke with Michael John, the game director for GlassLab, a collaborative effort that works to transform learning through digital games. (They recently reworked Sim City for classrooms to teach environmental science). He's also the father of 12-year-old Lily, so he's seen firsthand how video games can make a difference in her attitude. "Games simulate how we tackle problems in the real world," John explains. "They are a situation in which kids will willingly take on something very difficult and stick with it."
For example, John's daughter was struggling with operational math in her sixth grade class. All the numbers and symbols would overwhelm her, so she often declared she couldn't do the problem. One day, John suggested that Lily take a break from her homework and spend some time playing the latest Mario release on the Wii U. As he watched her play, he observed that she was working on a difficult challenge. She failed several times, but she'd keep trying—and she'd make more progress with each attempt. When the break was over, John said, "Before we do math, I want to talk to you about what you just did in Mario." The pair discussed how motivated Lily had been to complete the challenge, despite how much of a struggle it was. "I commented, 'Does that sound at all like those math problems?' It wasn't about teaching her math in the game. It was just about changing her mindset."
Of course, that doesn't mean kids should have unlimited screen-time. But making Lily reflect on the game makes it a learning experience, rather than just a passive activity. "A lot of times kids are getting a lot more out of games than you think," John says.
Here are some of John's tips for parents about making game time more productive for kids:
1. Be aware of what she's playing. Have her use the TV in the living room, where you can keep an eye on her. If she's playing on a phone or small device, you can still ask her what she's doing, and ask to take a turn.
2. Discuss and share the experience. Working on the game together will help you understand what she's going through. Afterward, engage her in conversation, just like you would after finishing a book. (Sample questions: Who are the characters in the game? What did she learn from mastering a new level? How would she change the rules of a given game and why?)
3. Encourage her to try challenging games that offer variation in activities. While games like Candy Crush Saga are interesting for a while, it eventually becomes the same action over and over. Kids learn more from games that make them think strategically or force them to make decisions.
Image: Family having fun playing video games via Shutterstock