This piece is part of a series on the intersection of gaming and education. Be sure to check out the first part, The Case for Screen Time.
The beauty of learning with games is that you learn while having fun. The challenge with making screen time double as learning time is, thus, that you can’t take the fun out of the game. This article is your crash course in turning game time into learning time. Next time, I’ll take these more general principles and begin applying them to specific games, but we’ll start with the basics.
Keep it age appropriate – but not dumbed down
These days, we are more aware of the idea of “age appropriate” than ever before. The unfortunate side effect of that is that we only give our toddlers toys approved for ages two to four, and our elementary kids books approved for early grades. Age appropriate recommendations are great as a tool for knowing where to start with benchmarks of development. The problem comes when your child starts pulling ahead and then gets stuck in age-appropriate-land. Child development tends to progress with the average ages on the age appropriate labels. But that is for average performance. If your kid excels in any way, they will progress through the stages faster than average. At that point, the stages become more of a map than a description of, or ceiling for, your child’s ability. With a little bit of understanding about these stages, you can tailor gameplay and stories to stretch and grow their minds.
Toddler (about 2-5 years): At this age, a child’s mind is a sponge. Memory is sharp and repetition is key. They will remember everything better now than ever again in their life, so the more information you can give them to chew on and store away, the better. Later, they will build on the familiarity of these memorized facts to help them learn more complex ideas and relationships. Everything is new at this age. Games tend to model real life, and repetitive play helps reinforce the information they are gathering. Kids tend to be “me” focused as they begin to develop personal preferences, and they need to learn concepts of turns and sharing.
Elementary (about 6-12 years): At this point, verbal skills are more fully developed. Children begin to apply the information that they know in more and more complicated patterns. For instance learning about arithmetic and grammar rather than just knowing numbers and letters. Social skills emerge, as does interest in competition and friendship. Play begins to incorporate increasingly complex imagination elements beyond simple imitation of real life.
Teenagers (about 13-18 years): Teen years are when all the building blocks finally come together, not only in application but in creation. Teens no longer simply memorize spelling words, they write stories and essays. They can turn facts into arguments and social relationships are paramount.
Knowing what’s appropriate for your kids level is key to maximizing the learning potential in games.
Keep it interactive
For little ones, you’ll probably have to help them figure out game mechanics, but don’t be surprised if they quickly start doing it on their own. When they take control of the game, let them – remember the point of a game is play and fun. To maintain some involvement, ask them what their objectives are. Ask them why they chose the move or strategy they implemented. Take turns and occasionally make bad choices yourself. Little ones LOVE to correct grown ups, and doing so will increase their confidence with the systems. Encourage more than one child to play on the same screen and help them take turns. This not only helps develop social skills (directly remedying one of the key drawbacks researchers have identified related to gaming time), but it also fosters communication, team work, sharing, taking turns… all key skills for everything from classroom work to board room presentations.
Connect game to real life
Every game has some element of real life in it. Whether its allusions to history, tests of logic, or simple colors and numbers. Do a little thinking and research yourself so that you can ask questions as you guys play. These questions should help lead your kiddos to new information and spark conversations and curiosity. If you don’t have time for research before hand, wonder your questions aloud and next time you have to take a break from the game have someone look up the answer on google. After all, the entire sum of human knowledge online amounts to more than cat videos. Turn your kids on to the power of knowledge generated through research.
Above all, remember to just play!
Play TOGETHER. Screen games can be every bit as interactive as a game of Monopoly (heck, if you really want, there is a Monopoly app). You just have to take the time to make it a thing you do with your kids rather than making it a thing you give your kids to make them be quiet. Teaching by example will help too. Let them play their own games, but when you’re on the phone playing, invite them to play with you. Show them new cool things. Invite them to pick the next game you try. The more you model interaction, the more they will adopt that as just the way we plays games.
It’s worth noting here that the future is screen-based. Novels and textbooks are already transitioning to an e-book format. Paper newspapers are almost extinct. Typing skill is more important than handwriting. If you get your kids used to the idea that we use screens to learn, things we wonder about, you empower them to create a future for all of us that uses the technology to its full potential, rather than simply tapping out at entertainment value.
P.S.: If you’re really interested in diving into the more academic side of play and video games as a learning tool take a look at these articles and studies…
The Power of Play by Dr. Rachel E White for the Minesota Children’s Museum
The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development by Jona K. Anderson-McNamee, MSU Extension Family and Consumer Science Agent, Cascade County, and Sandra J. Bailey, Family and Human Development Specialist, MSU
Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games, by Peter Grey, Ph. D.
The Many Benefits for Kids of Playing Video Games by Peter Grey, Ph. D.
Video game play may provide learning, health, social benefits, review finds, by The American Psychological Association