Video Games Gives Kids A Bigger Academic Edge Than Homework

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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:

Academic Competencies

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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10 Common Worries of Prospective Homeschoolers and Unschoolers

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When considering homeschooling a child who has reached school age or when the decision is made for children to leave a school they attended last year, parents who are homeschooling their children for the first time have a lot of questions, worries and fears. These concerns are very common and as a home educator for the past 17 years, I would like to address them.

1. Can I balance home and school? I am worried that my mother duties would suffer when I would be spending a lot of my time teaching.

More and more you will blend parenting and teaching so that there is not much distinction between the two. You have been a teacher since your child was born and that loving style won’t change. Let your passions loose and share them with your child. Let your children share their passions with you. Many parents find the roles of teacher and student reverse because the parents learn too. Think of teaching your child not as a person with a brain that you have to fill with facts, but as a journey in which you and your child will travel and learn together.

2. I’m worried that his education will not be recognized later down the road in order to be accepted into a good post secondary institution, so he can have all the same opportunities as traditionally schooled kids.

First, there are many studies that show that home-schooled children meet grade level achievement and often exceed it. Secondly, in Alberta, all children write the grade 12 diploma exams in the core subjects if they want to go on to post-secondary education. By high school age, many kids actively seek out courses to pass the exams and move forward with their goals. Many kids don’t even start formal coursework until grade 10 and do just fine on the exams – so don’t worry – you can’t possibly mess them up.

3. My kids didn’t listen to me when I nagged them about homework last year.  How will it be when their whole education is in my hands?
Homeschooling takes much less time than school. In many cases, it is even less time than children spend on homework! In elementary studies, home schooling might take less than 30 minutes a day not including reading and field trips. In junior high, it might be two hours a day and high school would be 2-3 hours per day. That’s it. And no homework to fight over. Children will have a lot of time to pursue their passions.

Kids are born to learn and will continue to seek out knowledge. It’s natural that humans, from infants to seniors, want to know about their world and how it works. However, they just might at times have a different learning agenda than you. If you have a bad day (and you will) just give up on teaching, go with the flow and go have some fun- build your relationship and try your agenda again in a few days or weeks.

4. I’m worried that I will burn out trying to entertain my kids all day.

Don’t even try to occupy your kids all day. I’m not sure where the notion came that parents must be constant entertainers, but it’s a habit you don’t want to start. Leave things out like a board game today, craft supplies tomorrow and a costume trunk the next day – they will learn to occupy themselves. You will be amazed at their creativity if you are not directing everything. If you don’t get into the habit of occupying them, they will not get into the habit of looking to you to fill their day and you will have free time to yourself. Many homeschoolers use this time to run a home-business, write, or work part-time. The bonus is that children will develop their creativity, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. Be sure to insist that they clean up messes though.

5. I’m only homeschooling one sibling. How will the children get along?

Kids readily accept that their siblings have different education situations. That’s okay. They may want to homeschool too or they might not. If you give each child the choice each year, it takes the power struggles out of the inevitable complaints resulting from their choice.

You might want to consider drawing up a contract with two of your non-negotiable stipulations of what you want done this year and get their input of their non-negotiables as well. Each of you sign your name and post it on the wall. That helps when the whining starts. You can point to what the children signed and agreed to.

You will have bad days when the kids are fighting non-stop and you wonder if they won’t be better off in school. But, they would have those days even if they were in school. Most homeschoolers report that their older kids have much better relations because of learning to get along with each other in the early years. For example, my university kids love to still play board games with their 12 year-old brother.

6. How can I teach them things that I don’t know very much about, such as fractions?

Your kids are going to learn fractions whether you teach them or not. You can’t force a child to learn and you can’t stop them from learning. Math concepts are learned from life – baking, money, shopping etc. Language is learned from avid reading. When they get to later grades, they have to start learning fractions on paper rather than in their heads. As kids get into junior and senior high school, there are online teachers that can teach your kids what you don’t know or want to. And developmentally, they are mature enough to listen more to an outside teacher than you!

7. What if I  made the wrong choices this year?  Programs?  Curriculum? Classes?

It’s only a year! Nothing is written in stone. Your education plan (the worksheet you submit to your facilitator of your year’s plan) is a work-in-progress document and you can change anything you wish at any time. Dump curriculum if it doesn’t work for you, or change programs or the timing of topics. Most homeschoolers don’t finish their goals for the year (we are human and humans procrastinate, or life just gets in the way of our best intentions)and the kids move on to the next grade and do just fine! Enjoy the time you have with your children.

8. I worry about what my kids will miss out from not attending school; School portraits, holiday parties, riding the school bus, Christmas pageants, field trips, etc.

The homeschooling community will provide all those experiences too. In school, the logistics of organizing field trips for a large group only allow for one or two field trips per year. With a family, you can go anywhere, anytime! Join a support group or facebook group (search for “city name” and “homeschool” and lots of groups will pop up) that organizes a lot of outings and you could be on a field trip every day. The artists, writers, presenters and special guests that do programs in schools will also provide them to a group of homeschoolers. It just requires someone to organize it. In our earlier years, the homeschooling community provided school photos, year-end talent concerts (that anyone can perform in, regardless of talent) field trips every week, parent organized holiday parties, music lessons and group discounts on plays, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Some parents love to organize and if you are one of them, pick something your child wants to do, pick a date and advertise it and you will have a group to go with you in no time. It’s not homeschooling as much as community schooling!

The only thing missing is the school bus experience and perhaps children will get that in high school!

9. When I tell relatives what we are going to do, I am met with skepticism, silence and negative comments. How do I handle being judged? It is undermining my confidence.

Unfortunately, until homeschooling becomes more widely understood, you will be judged! Most people hold stereotypes of the “social” and “academic” aspect, and are misinformed by homeschooling portrayals in the media. Many homeschoolers just smile and say, “It’s the best choice for our family.” Grow a thick skin and let comments bounce off of you.

10. My child is so social. How will I provide friends for her?

Friends are everywhere, not just at school. Some kids love being with other kids. Some kids love being home without a lot of people around. You can provide both in homeschooling where you set the pace for social activities. There is enough going on in your city for homeschooling clubs, events, classes and outings that there is something organized for everyone – the outdoor enthusiasts, the sports crowd, writing groups and even the Friday afternoon Minecraft club at my house! Not to mention the usual community organizations such as Boy Scouts, church groups, community classes, and more.

Relax, seek out a mentor for the bad days, and most of all, enjoy your children and learning. It really is a great ride you and your children won’t regret!

Be sure to visit APCA’s website for homeschooling articles, a sample education plan and a sample parent-child contract.

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