Excerpted from the book, Unschooling To University (and College too): Relationships matter most in a world crammed with content.
Games are just another food on the buffet of learning
Children love their technology and parents know it. If you treat screen time like any other educational tool, it will not be elevated to “treat” status in the eyes of the children, and they will naturally find a balance between that and other activities. Leave lots of other play options lying around. Everything kids are curious about is educational and contributes in some way to their development.
Educational benefits of video and computer games
Are video games educational? Of course, they are! Any kind of toy or game is educational in that it teaches children knowledge and competencies. Not every game has to be labeled “educational” to be educational. Other than volunteering, travel, and reading, video games have been the biggest “curriculum” in our home education and have been very valuable in keeping the children engaged in learning, over textbooks and worksheets.
As a parent of five gamers of both genders, I learned early that my children hated the “educational games” that have primitive graphics, poor logic, clumsy interface, are non-multiplayer, and are just plain lame. These educational games seem to be marketed to parents who aim for productive use of time rather than plain fun.
When my kids immersed themselves in games like World of Warcraft, Nox, Spore, Gizmos and Gadgets, Age of Empires, Graal, Lacuna Expanse, Civilization, Garry’s Mod, Crusader Kings, Runescape, and League of Legends, they learned not only reading, writing, and math skills, but also social studies, mythology, history, and science. They learned the valuable social skills of cooperation and conflict resolution with other in-game players, and with buddies in the same room playing the same game. In (World of Warcraft) WOW, League of Legends, and Overwatch, they learned the personal skills of resilience during adversity, perseverance and the commitment to continue and finish for the team, even when they were discouraged. They learned how to deal with challenges, problems, team members, and competitors under time pressure. They learned how to win gracefully, and how to face losing with dignity—and without throwing a keyboard across the room.
Indirectly, games and toys teach some academic concepts in ways that are compelling to children, aided by the focus that is essential for gaming success. Parents who don’t play video games may not even realize how their children have learned these competencies. Have a look at the following impressive list of competencies that video games can help to develop:
Executive function planning and working memory skills: Games teach critical thinking, analytical thinking, strategy, and problem-solving skills. Think about the scientific method. Most games give clues but not directions. So, a player has to hypothesize to find a strategy that might work. The game developers withhold critical information, so players must use trial and error to discover what they need to know. The games are giant puzzles that stretch executive function and working memory and develop skills. Further, gaming teaches problem solving under duress because many of the tasks they have to perform have time limits!
Multi-tasking: Players learn to manage many forms of information and options, usually under the stress of time limits and encroaching competitors. Just memorizing the number of items one can obtain in a game is an amazing feat. Some games make a player battle in order to stay alive, providing a great training ground for the workplace! When juggling competing interests, players also learn about time management and setting priorities.
Literacy: Games that require reading, writing, and spelling build literacy skills both on- screen and in game manuals that are often written at a high school level, telling gamers how to play and offering insights for getting over rough spots. Children who can’t read certainly try to learn! Our kids learned to read, write and use grammar from playing Graal, Animal Crossing, Sims, Sim City and many other games. Children who hate workbooks and seat-work can practice literacy skills in a format that really motivates them.
Math skills: Games develop pattern recognition and use math operations, reasoning, and logic to solve problems. The kids were motivated to learn how to tell time. They wanted to know exactly how long a half an hour was and how many more minutes until Neil gets off and they get their turn!
Computer programming skills: They learned coding, Perl, C++, CSS, HTML, scripts, and many other useful computer programming skills by playing user-modifiable games. My son learned how to use Java scripts by playing Lacuna Expanse.
Art, History and Science: Games initiate interest in many topic areas in history, art, culture, and science that spur research and reading. My kids also learned much of elementary school Greek history from playing Age of Mythology, and science from Gizmos and Gadgets and Magic School Bus. Civilization and Crusader Kings were great for learning history. Kerbal Space Program was excellent for learning orbital mechanics, space travel, physics, and engineering.
Knowledge: Gaming allows the elderly, poor, isolated or confined person access to in- formation and communication that might otherwise be inaccessible.
Creativity: During our children’s heavy video game-playing years, they continued with their self-motivated art representations: they played mostly the Mario series, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Pokemon, and Kirby. They painted hundreds of pictures of the characters. In fact, the characters were represented in every medium possible—play-dough, Lego, wood, watercolor, markers, homemade costumes, stuffed figures, and many others. The handwritten stories of the adventures of Kirby and Mario, done by all the children, were equally impressive. They even made homemade board games featuring the characters. When Burger King ran a promotion handing out Pokeballs with characters inside along with their kids’ meals, we ate at Burger King four nights a week and acquired an immense collection of figurines! Although they wouldn’t touch those kids’ meals today, the figurines still represent many cherished memories of their imaginary play in which they set up scenes, built habitats, and invented stories and games with each other and with their characters. I am still amazed at the creativity that those video and computer games inspired. As the kids got older, their creativity moved from physical objects to a screen. They generated art, music, writing, and videos onscreen. The creative process was still there; it just changed formats. Once children reach school-age, mainstream parents tend to get rid of traditional creative items such as arts and craft supplies, paints, dress-up clothes, and drama props because “the schools can deal with the mess.” However, the schools become more academic from Grade 4 on, so very few children have creative outlets at home or at school. Hence the appeal of being creative on the computer, with games like the Sims, Sim Theme Park, and Animal Crossing, where children can create their own worlds. It’s not the children’s need for creativity that has changed, but the medium.
Social and Emotional Competencies
Connection: Children can easily stay in touch with family and friends around the world by playing games, talking, and socializing in real time over communication channels such as Discord or FaceTime. Grandparents love to connect with their grandchildren, regardless of how far apart they might be. My kids often would game with their siblings who were away at university or had moved to another city to work.
Entertainment: The internet and gaming provide limitless sources of entertainment in video and audio format. Name your genre and it’s available.
De-stressing skills: Gaming helps players to zone out, de-stress, escape into fantasy worlds, and relax. My friend is 45 years old and works as a realtor. To de-stress, she comes home and plays computer games with her daughter.
Delayed gratification skills: Players have to work their way up by levels and cannot shortcut without others’ help. Studies show that children who learn to appreciate delayed gratification at an early age tend to do better in life.
Executive function focus skills: Especially difficult in a background of music, noise, chattering, and distractions, gaming demands total focused concentration. This is a useful practice for many children. Often, children are diagnosed with attention deficits in school, yet can focus for hours on gaming.
Self-esteem: Games build self-esteem and confidence in skills that are admired by peers. This is especially important for children who don’t excel in academics, sports, or the arts. Being accepted and respected for a special skill builds self-confidence in other areas of their lives.
Executive function inhibitory control: Games provide a method of teaching and practicing emotional intelligence. Games give children practice in handling anger, frustration, and setbacks—especially when they lose an acquired level because they forgot to save! It even teaches natural consequences and how to problem solve to fix a situation. Of course, children need an adult around to help them deal with those strong emotions, or else a controller will go flying against the wall!
Gender neutrality: The internet and gaming enable people to communicate without visual stereotypes. People are judged on their words and actions, not on age, gender, culture, or looks.
Commitment and work ethic: “My son doesn’t commit to extracurricular activities, but he is persistent in mastering a game, committing to a team of five in a game, or learning coding,” says Ellen, homeschooling mom of two.
Cooperation and collaboration: Multi-player games lend themselves to team building, cooperation, strategy formation, and group problem solving with other players both in the game and those watching the game. Players have to work together to develop a plan, achieve results, and cover each others’ backs. They learn to negotiate, compromise, and practice fair play.
Encouragement: As well, when one child plays and another watches, they both learn how to encourage each other to take risks, try another solution, and keep going. It’s wonderful to watch their “team approach,” even if only one child is at the controls. Often, my kids played as a team against other teams in League of Legends and it was lovely to watch how they bonded.
Independence: In a world of helicopter parenting, gaming and social media provide a playground for children that is not micro-managed by adults. Children make the rules or the game makes the rules, but not the parents. When children get together face to face, they speak a gaming language that is not understood by adults, but that bonds them together in a secret world.
Conversations: When my kids would meet up face to face with their friends, they spent non-gaming time engrossed in conversations, bragging about games they had and which ones to go for next, which characters they wanted to play, and what levels they had achieved—much like we used to discuss hockey stats, car enhancements, and movie stars. Teens especially like to differentiate themselves from adults in their form of dress, hairstyles, music, and activities. Gaming is one more avenue that helps them do that.
Family closeness: Many parents play video games with their children from a young age until the kids move out—then come back for Sunday dinner and a round of League of Legends! As a non-gamer, I personally found that taking an interest in my children’s gaming by sitting and watching them and listening to their descriptive adventures in the game brought us closer in communicating and sharing fun times.
Socialization: Minecraft Club! Computer Coding Club! Girls Who Game Club! As kids move into the teen years, they are not well practiced in initiating conversations because they are more self-conscious about what they say and do. They need an activity to focus on in order to relax. Gaming clubs provide that activity.
Social media has benefits too!
Social: Kids can easily connect to other like-minded kids who share their interests.
Writing: They can flex their debating and persuasive writing skills on hot topics in discussion websites, with other really good debaters.
Research: They can learn about people with different backgrounds, religions, and cultures as they make online friends around the world.
Create: They can create and share musical, technical, and artistic projects with others by writing blogs and making websites, videos, memes, podcasts, and webinars.
Collaboration: They can collaborate on projects without ever meeting each other in person. Several books have been published with such collaboration.
Citizenship: They can organize, volunteer, raise collective consciousness, and raise funds for charitable organizations and worthy causes.
Entrepreneurship: They can start and grow a business.
Health: They can access health information on any topic from sexuality to depression and get answers to questions that they would be embarrassed to ask an adult.
Because of the proliferation of smartphones and video games, which 80 percent of Canadian kids play, children as a school cohort are dating at older ages, having sex later, driving later, and moving out later, and have little taste for alcohol and smoking. (McKnight, 2015) These are excellent trends. The trade-off is that they spend more time alone in their rooms, connected to their mobile phones. Thus, inter-personal and socialization skills can take a hit. Family can counteract that by spending time together and scheduling outside family social time. Declare some screen-free zones and times, like meal time, to gather together, socialize, and enjoy each other’s company. Social media can also be brutal to children’s self-esteem, so open communication with supportive parents and siblings is critical in keeping peer stress tolerable and not toxic. Screens have value, but children also need face-to-face relationships in the three-dimensional, physical world. Like all technology, games and social media are tools and how we use them can be beneficial or detrimental. Balance is key.
Excerpted from Unschooling To University: Relationships matter most in a world crammed with content, By Judy Arnall
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