A+ Advice for Parents

Be Smart When It Comes to Kids' Video Games

Q: I'm tired of researchers telling parents to "limit kids' screen time." We want them to be tech-smart, yet we harp at them to put down their digital devices. Come on! Can we get real about kids and video games?

A: Kids today spend an average of seven hours a day on some sort of electronic device, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, "fully 97 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 play computer, web, portable or console games."

Greg Toppo, a former public school teacher and USA Today's K-12 education reporter, urges folks to appreciate the learning potential in gaming. He says that games "believe" in players. They "allow learners to learn at their own pace, take risks, cultivate deeper understanding and even fail and try again."

Gaming encourages kids to succeed in ways that "too often elude them in school, while fostering grit, resilience and a commitment to learning," says Toppo, who makes the case in his new book, "The Game Believes in You" (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2015).

He asks parents to distinguish between games that "require players to test and improve their skills, follow a narrative and take part in teamwork and interact with other people" and those that don't. Save your worries for games that "pull us away from others and into hours of solitary, uninterrupted play, especially if they don't require much in the way of skills."

Research suggests that girls can benefit from gaming because it strengthens visual-spatial skills, such as attention and mental rotation ability, which are generally less developed than in boys. Hank Pellissier, director of the Piedmont, California-based Brighter Brains Institute, points to a University of Toronto study suggesting that "only 10 hours of training with an action video game" decreased or eliminated the female visual-spatial disadvantage. (For more of Pellissier's education analysis, go to greatschools.org.)

How can you identify games that promote positive outcomes? Media watchdog commonsensemedia.org reviews and rates video games for content and age appropriateness. Children's Technology Review, a subscription-based source of more than 11,000 reviews of commercial children's digital media products, is continually updated and available in most school and public libraries. Go to childrenstech.com for more information.

Parents should realize that "games with adult ratings carry them for a reason," says Toppo. He asks parents concerned about a particular game: Have you sat down and played the game with your kids? Have you asked them what they're getting out of it?

Children's media advocates suggest parents and kids engage in "joint media engagement, a fancy term for sitting on the couch playing with your kids and talking about what's happening onscreen," says Toppo.

When you do this, monitor your own reactions. Do you take failures in stride? How do you react to being killed by the same bad guy in the same spot? Do you do a victory dance or gloat when you win?

"As with real life," Toppo explains, "your kids are watching, though they may not seem to be. They'll learn as much about you from your failures as your successes, so fail well."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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