Video games and learning

Video games can play a positive role in your child’s brain development. Although, as parents, we often don’t think about video games and learning as things that go together, there are many different skills kids can learn from video games. Educational video games are also a great way to work on academic skills. A good game can keep a child engaged much longer on a topic than a worksheet. But not every video game needs to be educational in nature, there are skills that kids can learn even when just playing video games for pure entertainment.

Critical Thinking

The soft skill of critical thinking is vitally important in our new, high tech world. And while there are many workbooks designed to teach this skill, it is possible that our tech culture itself is providing a more effective training than any workbook can hope to achieve.

In this study, students were given logical reasoning and critical analysis tests and then split into two groups. One group played a video game for 30 minutes each day that would strengthen those skills and the other group did not. The study was conducted on 7th grade students during school hours. The result is pretty astounding. The students who spent 30 minutes playing video games before school increased their scores by 62% while the group that did not play only increased by 18%. (Seventh graders are still in a period of developing these skills so it makes sense that even those not specifically training would see an increase of some level.)

The students mentioned that the games did compel them to think before
making a move.

https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1504/1504.01665.pdf

Of course, these gains will not be seen with every type of video game. These same skills can, arguably, be attained by playing traditional games such as Othello, Go, Chess, and many others. The video game used in this study was a cross between Othello and Go and was specifically designed to improve these skills.

One simple test you can use to decide if a game is going to be beneficial to your child is to ask the questions, “Will my child need to think before they act?”

Reading/Story/Language Development

Now we come to an interesting part of the gaming world that many people do not think about. There are many games which contain excellent stories and writing. In the world of RPG video games (Role-Playing Games) kids have a lot of reading to do as they play through the game. Many times if they choose to click through and ignore the reading, they will miss important quests and plot points, get lost in the game, and have to go back and read.

In fact, a study in Nature found that even action games, with no direct reading required helped improve auditory-visual skills in Italian students with dyslexia. It was simply the sound to visual stimuli association that acted as a therapy, improving reading skills in this group of students.

Social/Emotional

Video games are often blamed as the reason that kids fail to develop social skills and close peer relationships. The stereotype of the loner in the basement obsessively playing video games is thought to be an obvious example. But this begs a few questions. Are kids who spend all their free time in the basement playing video games actually being antisocial? Or are they playing with friends?

I know when my teens are playing video games in the basement; they are either playing online with friends (we can hear them chatting on Discord as they play), or there are actual friends at our house playing with them. Video games do not necessarily cause social isolation. I think social isolation is a real problem, but there are much bigger societal issues causing that problem and video games are just a convenient scapegoat, keeping us from having to sort through the complexities that create this problem.

The underlying principle of why a video game can help with social skills such as empathy is the same reason reading a book, (which is not a social activity), develops those same skills. It is the shift in perspective that teaches kids empathy. Whether that shift is created by experiencing the life of a main character in a book, playing an RPG character, or even empathizing when your friend’s RPG character is struggling, the shift in perspective results in strengthening social and emotional skills.

Gaming with friends, in a supportive environment, can be a healthy way for teens to increase these skills. I would never suggest that online friends can replace real-life friends, kids need both, but as the recent pandemic has taught us, long-distance socializing is much better than complete isolation.

Problem Solving

Studies in child development have shown for some time that play is a crucial part of learning. But somehow video games have been unfairly thrown out of this category of activity. But what is a person doing when they play a video game? I’m pretty sure the only reason to use a video game is to play.

Yet in recent years many programs have popped up which claim to train your brain. These are not used for the purpose of play but, instead, to keep the brain fit. How are these brain fitness apps and programs different from the video games your kid actually wants/begs to play? Well, they are boring for one. Essentially, the play, adventure, and excitement have all been stripped from these programs.

Another interesting phenomenon is that these brain fitness programs often cost more than your average video game, usually requiring a monthly subscription. Are they worth the extra money and the lack of interest? (You will have to make your child do those programs, just like you make them do homework, as opposed to just letting them play and secretly knowing they are building a bigger, better brain.)

One study was designed with the specific goal of pitting a popular video game, World of Warcraft, against a popular brain fitness program, CogniFit, to find out if either, or both increased problem-solving skills. This study was conducted on college students. Although it is a small study, the results were pretty clear, World of Warcraft increased problem-solving skills and CogniFit did not.

The power of learning through play is real, even with video games.

Visual/Spatial

This is perhaps one of the biggest strengths of playing video games and has been studied extensively. Many video games require complex spatial skills, I can attest to that, as I have incredibly poor spatial reasoning and also find many video games too difficult to play.

The Things that Make Video Games Bad for Kids

Even though there are many benefits to allowing video games to be part of your child’s routine, there is still a need to use them wisely. Like many things in life, there can be downsides when you consume too much of a good thing. The negative effects of video games present themselves when video gaming takes precedence over other important life activities that promote your child’s development. It’s not about good vs. bad activities, it’s about creating a balanced lifestyle that includes all the different kinds of activities that children need for healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Don’t take the place of moving

One crucially important activity for optimal brain development is moving. Not only does exercising to get your heart rate up send more oxygen to your brain, but motion itself, builds neural connections in your brain. Being overly sedentary is not only a detriment to your child’s physical health but also stunts their brain development.

So no matter how much they love playing video games or how many skills they are learning while they play, they still need to get away from the screen and exercise regularly. Like every day. For at least an hour. A combination of high heart rate activities and activities that demand a high level of physical coordination is optimal. Some activities will provide both, such as tap dancing.

Video games can never take the place of our bodies and brains need for motion.

Don’t take the place of real-world social friendships

Although video games are often played socially, with online friends, kids still need to interact with their peers in real-time. They need to practice reading facial expressions and cues, having in-depth conversations, and other social etiquette that can only be practiced face to face.

So while video games can compliment a child’s social skills make sure they are still spending time with real life friends on a regular basis.

Inappropriate content for the age – social, emotional processing of the child

Keeping games age appropriate for the child is important, just like deciding when they are ready to see various movies. It’s important to pick up on your child’s own behavior when it comes to keeping things age appropriate. While guides and ratings can be helpful, no one knows your child and what they are ready for as much as you.

If your child loses their temper or gets grumpy after playing a game, it is your clue that something is off. They either spent way too much time playing, or they are not ready for the game.

It’s important to remember that while children may be ready to handle violence in a fairy tale setting, that does not mean they are ready to encounter it in a realistic setting. This is true of both movies, tv shows, and video games.

Kids are not always ready for the mature content of video games, so choose wisely when purchasing games.

Take the child out of nature keeping them indoors for too long

Humans need nature, it is, afterall, our natural environment. Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress, gives them a richer sensory experience than any indoor environment, and natural sunlight provides many benefits beyond vitamin D. Getting outside should be a part of every kid’s daily routine. There are also many benefits to eye health, as we tend to exercise our eyes in a different way when we are outdoors, looking farther away and strengthening our long distance vision.

Turning off the screens to get some outside refreshment is essential.

Choosing the right kind of video games

We have covered the advantages of many types of video games, however, there are video games that are a complete waste of time and provide no positive benefits. If your child can play by just hitting a screen, or pressing buttons, without paying attention to what is happening on the screen, delete that APP NOW!

And it is often cheap apps where you will find the mindless games. The more a game makes your child think, the better it is. Even though some simple games, like shooting moving targets, may not require deep thinking, you still have to pay attention to the screen and are working on visual/spatial skills and coordination.

Ways you can help your kids keep their video gaming in a positive, balanced space

Keep gaming time during a certain window of time each day, or make a list of things your child must do before they turn on the video games each day. If your child is sensitive to too much screen time, take their attitude as your clue and give them a strict time allowed per day.

Great games encourage the brain to do most of the work. Here are some games to start with. These are linked from Plays.org, which is a new ad-free platform where you can play games for free.

Tetra Blocks

Kingdom Defense

Batman Gothom City Speed Game

Free educational games can be fun for kids and you may find they can extend their screen time with these types of games without the emotional grouchiness that other types of video games may cause.

Here are some free educational video games:

Guardians: Defenders of Mathematica

Multiplication Table

Math Bee

Pixel Piano

Logic/Pattern Games

You don’t need to feel guilty about letting your kids play video games when you need time to concentrate on working from home or making dinner. Just guide them to games that will be beneficial, make sure there developmental needs are being met, and keep them away from games that are not appropriate for their age.

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