Are the games your kids play actually educational? (Is Candy Crush making them smarter?)

January 24, 2014

Back in the 20th century, PC games that were overtly advertised as “learning games” were much more prevalent and, shockingly, even embraced by kids. With few virtual gaming options, I actually looked forward to my daily JumpStart session and Encarta’s Mindmaze, among other puzzle-solving adventures (Math Blaster, Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego… am I jogging some memories here?).

These days, the mere suggestion that a game has educational value sends kids running. With children spending more time in front of screens than ever, parents now justify to themselves that what their kids are watching/playing is intellectually stimulating. The father of a 3-year-old said in a NYTimes article, “I’ll lie to myself that these [apps] are skill builders” though he convinces himself that “[his son’s] really learning hand-eye coordination from the golf game, and it beats the hell out of sitting and watching television.” Well, does it? At least parents used to have control over what their kids watched on TV, if they were allowed to watch anything at all (cue my childhood in which TV was restricted but I was allowed to be a cast member on Sesame Street…what??!).

A Joan Ganz Cooney Center study released today found that most educational media content consumed by children point to TV as the source; other device screens offer a fraction of that content consumption. Educational television is the most frequently used (56% watch at least weekly); educational video games and online videos are the least frequently used (24% and 28% of children are weekly users, respectively).

Unfortunately, kids are spending more time on mobile and tablet devices that are less likely to result in their engagement with educational media. Today’s toddlers wield their own iPads and iPod touches and have outpaced most adults in navigating these devices, making it increasingly difficult for parents to limit what their kids do on these devices. The toddlers—they’re out of control.

Sadly, though children are more likely to glean educational value from TV programs versus mobile apps, the amount of time spent absorbing educational media significantly declines as children get older. This is partially attributable to the scarcity of available programs for older children a.k.a. there’s no middle school version of Dora the Explorer.

Motoko Rich writes in Screen Time Study Finds Education Drop-Off, “as children spend more time with screens as they get older, they spend less time doing educational activities, with 8- to 10-year-olds spending about half the time with educational content that 2- to 4-year-olds do.”

So, what now? Well, TV programming needs an overhaul, at least for young adults. Unless MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” is prompting your kid to engage in spirited scholarly dialogue about the current state of society, we need more shows like NatGeo’s “Brain Games” and fewer shows like Nickelodeon’s “Victorious.” (I can already hear the collective groan.) As for mobile apps and games, there are games out there that teach math, vocabulary, spatial recognition, and strategic problem solving AND that are fun; parents just need to be more assiduous about finding them. You do want your kid to make it to college, don’t you? (A page out of the parenting book: guilt is the best form of motivation.)

(My personal mobile game recommendations: Toobz, Flow, Flood-It, Unblock Me. My current IRL game obsession: bananagrams. And okay, fine, I’ll give you Candy Crush, too.)

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