Children have been playing video games since Pong came out in the early ‘70s. According to Common Sense Media, before schools shut down, kids spent an hour or more each day playing social games like Minecraft and Fortnite. But screen time has increased significantly in the age of social distancing. Last year, aspiring gamers searched high and low for a Nintendo Switch at a physical or online store just so they could connect with friends through games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
When should kids start?
Our country’s new normal left many parents asking themselves not just if they should introduce video games to their young children, but when. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children younger than 18 months avoid screens altogether, toddlers between 18 and 24 months use high-quality programming or apps only with a parent, and preschoolers between the ages of two and five should spend no more than an hour a day watching “high-quality programming,” such as PBS Kids.
But Dr. Sinem Siyahhan, a co-director of the Educational Leadership Joint Doctoral Program with UC San Diego at California State University San Marcos, believes that children and adults can also share meaningful time learning about the world through video games.
“I have a three-year-old, and we were playing Minecraft together,” she explains. “We do that because when he showed interest in making animal sounds, I thought it would be great because I can walk around in the environment onscreen and name all these animals instead of going to the farm. I can ask him, ‘What sound does a cow make?’ And that’s really useful because it creates a dialogue.”
We asked Siyahhan, who also co-authored the book Families at Play: Connecting and Learning Through Video Games, for some tips on how and when to introduce kids to gaming.
Find an age-appropriate game
Just like with the movies, books, and television shows children consume, you want to find a video game with subject matter that is appropriate for their age. But Siyahhan also recommends finding something that matches their level of skill and cognition. Games with complicated controls may overwhelm a preschooler, so she suggests starting by browsing through websites like Common Sense Media to find games that are right for your child’s age group.
“Don’t be afraid to go to Google Play or the App Store and see what people say,” she says. “Try downloading a game on your tablet and try it out. Explore your curiosity.”
Siyahhan says there is a common misconception that all video games are inappropriate for children because some have violent content. But as tablets have grown in popularity, the medium has become more diverse. There are plenty of educational-type games and apps featuring characters like Dora the Explorer targeted to children preschool-age and beyond.
You can’t just watch your kids play
Siyahhan says that picking the games for your children to play isn’t enough. You still need to participate with them in some way, although this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to join in. Look at the screen your children are playing on and be ready to find opportunities to build a relationship over the game.
“When children know all the game’s mechanics and can teach an adult, that makes them proud, and they feel that what they are doing is valuable,” she says.
And you can encourage your kids to be active learners by digging deeper into the game’s educational aspects. For example, if they’re playing a game with dinosaurs, they might want to learn more about when the creatures ruled the Earth 65 million years ago. And you can also have conversations about how to think for themselves and manage their frustrations when they can’t complete a level.
“You’re also teaching them that they have to persist,” Siyahhan says. “If they die three times and give up, that’s not a good lesson to learn. You can use it as a learning opportunity. Give it a few days and encourage them to pick up the controller and try again. Talk through it and ask what they think happened.”
Start setting limits
There are plenty of reasons to encourage young children to play video games, including speculation that it can lead to a career in computer science and other STEM occupations. But that doesn’t mean that you should let your kids spend all their free time playing Minecraft instead of going outside.
Siyahhan is hesitant to offer specific parameters, but says that as you explore video games with your child, it’s likely that limitations stemming from your parenting style and values will emerge. She also says that just because video games aren’t the same as playing a sport, it doesn’t make the time spent playing them less valuable—it is still quality time spent together.
As they get older, all of these priorities—finding age-appropriate games, exploring them together, and setting limits—will help establish a foundation for how they’ll discover new and play new games and apps in the future.