Q: Our school sent home the usual memo saying "keep screen time to a minimum" and "read with your kids." I get that reading is important, but our two kids, ages 10 and 11, love video games. There must be some educational value, no?
A: Games -- video or otherwise -- can excite and challenge learners. For decades, teachers have successfully used games to teach and reinforce concepts.
"Play is the way the human brain is wired to learn," agrees Mitch Weisburgh, co-founder of Games4Ed (games4ed.org). "Virtually all kids today play video games, so we need to find appropriate games for learners and teach them to avoid the pitfalls of gaming."
Weisburgh describes five ways well-designed games can motivate kids and support learning:
-- Games are an optimal learning environment. They promote concentration and control, provide a fun way to practice skills and elicit effort that a student might not otherwise put forth.
-- Games focus on the sweet spot for learning. They push players beyond what they can do.
-- Games get kids to persist. "They engage players through a quick cycle of challenge-act-learn-accomplish," Weisburgh says, "so that the hard work of learning is intrinsically rewarded, and the learner wants to continue playing and learning."
-- Games encourage trial and failure. Players fail more than they succeed, "but," Weisburgh says, "failure only means that a particular approach failed."
-- Games offer great real-world simulations. NASA games put kids on missions to Mars. "Zoo U" improves students' social literacy without risky behaviors. In "Mission US," students play roles at key turning points in U.S. history. In "iCivics," students become senators.
In "sandbox games, like 'Minecraft,' players build surroundings and then interact with others within their surroundings," says Weisburgh. "There are history games, like Sid Meier's 'Civilization,' that involve strategy and planning. There are games where kids build games, like 'Globaloria,' 'Scratch' and 'GameSalad.'"
Parents play a critically important role in gaming, stresses Weisburgh.
"They need to make sure that their kids get enough physical exercise, are socializing, stay safe (parents should monitor for sex and violence in games, as well as who their kids interact with online) and aren't wasting hours," he says. "You can only do this by spending time with your kids when they are on their games."
Ask your kids questions such as, "What is the purpose of this game?" "What are you trying to do?" "Why do you like this game?" "What are you learning?"
If their answers suggest that your kids' time might be better used, have them show you another game that they like, advises Weisburgh.
"Kids, especially those of your kids' age, are very forthcoming," he explains. "They will learn to choose games wisely from your guidance -- and will be thrilled that you are taking an interest."
Find appropriate games at GameUp, BrainPOP's site for free educational games, and Graphite, a website that reviews and rates education games. Most libraries subscribe to Children's Technology Review, a monthly evaluation of new educational software (childrenstech.com).
And about your kids' reading? I'm glad that you "get it" -- don't let your kids go a day without it.
(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.)