Why parents don’t play video games with their kids

Have you ever kicked the soccer ball around in the backyard with your child? Gotten out the crayons and markers and drawn and colored with them? Sat down and read a book together? Most parents would answer yes to the all of these questions, yet only about 30% of parents report that they regularly spend time engaged with their children in their children’s favorite pastime — playing with video games and other digital technologies.

Why is that parents don’t play video games with their kids? After all, parents care about what their kids are doing and want them to benefit from their activities. Do we think they can’t learn anything from video games or that they’re a waste of time? Or is it really more about our own relationship with technology that prevents us from engaging with our children in their digital playtime?

The following is an excerpt from my latest book, Playing Smarter in a Digital World, that explores this dilemma.

Why Parents and Educators Do Not Teach or Talk to Children about Video Games and Digital Play

One of the primary reasons that video-game and app play is not routinely used as a teaching tool is that children often know more than their parents about the technologies they are using, which is in contrast to most other areas of knowledge. Parents often struggle when playing even simple video games such as Angry Birds or Diner Dash. However, it is not simply that adults rarely play video games. In 2013 the Entertainment and Software  Association [ESA] reported that 48% of adults over the age of 50 identified themselves as gamers  and preferred games that mimicked traditional forms of play, including card, puzzle, and trivia games. Adult favorites include games such as Solitaire, Tetris, and Candy Crush.1

Instead, parents often feel overwhelmed by the skills necessary to engage in more complex games such as Minecraft and first-person shooters such as Halo and the Call of Duty series. Adults frequently  report feeling inadequate, particularly in games that require fast reaction time. As a result, a hands-off policy is commonplace in which parents may set limits on their children’s gameplay and do not view it as an opportunity for learning. If you are like me, you might feel a bit embarrassed about how long it takes you to learn to play a game or use a new app compared to your 10-year-old child.

There is more to this issue. Most parents and educators born in the 1970s or before did not grow up with video games and digital media as a daily part of their lives and are often referred to as “digital immigrants.” Many of these parents report that they wish their children spent more time playing with “traditional” toys, as they did as children. They are also less likely to recognize video games and digital media as opportunities for learning and to find that “playing” with a new technology is a challenge they enjoy. One of the common themes in households is that parents have handed off digital-media expertise to their children. How many parents have asked their children for help in programming their cell phones or learning how to use a specific app? How many teachers are reluctant to use games and technology in the classroom because, by definition, they are supposed to know more than their students, and in this case they do not.

My experience as president of a technology business, LearningWorks for Kids, may be illustrative of what a number of other adults encounter. I have spent thousands of hours learning to use technologies to help us in developing a website, communicating with game publishers, and learning about social media. But I am still quite clearly a digital immigrant who frequently struggles to work fluently with technology. I made a decision to surround myself in our business with digital natives who grew up in a world of video games and cell phones, so I am 27 years older than the next oldest person at LearningWorks for Kids. I also frequently ask my staff to work on technological tasks that I have the capacity to do on my own but find to be cumbersome. My staff and children roll their eyes at me sometimes when I am navigating from one place to another on our website, opening an application on my desktop, or composing a tweet. They have to stifle a laugh when they see that it takes me three steps for every step they take when using a new technology. Occasionally I get the last laugh, such as when I sign my texts (a clear transgression of the rules of texting of which I am well aware) to my children, “XOX, Dad.”

So there is logic to why many adults have disengaged themselves from their children’s digital-media use and do not make efforts to use them as teaching tools. Nonetheless, it is very important that adults who feel like this go beyond their insecurities. The reality is that our children spend an enormous amount of time and energy involved in these digital media. In order for adults to be part of their world and to help them get the most that they can get from these digital tools, we need to jump in. This does not mean that parents need to go to their local community college and take a course on texting or spend hours building a cathedral in Minecraft. It does mean that if we are going to optimize what our kids can learn from their digital play, we need to become more knowledgeable about what children are doing with digital media and learn enough about the specific tools they are using so that we can have informed conversations with them. We need to learn more about the types of skills and content that they learn in their digital-media use. We also need to know enough about the risks and dangers of digital technologies so that we can protect them from exposure to inappropriate material, cyberbullying, and other dangers of the technological world.

1 Entertainment Software Association (2013). Essential facts about the computer and video game industry: 2013 sales, demographic and usage data. Retrieved from http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_EF_2013.pdf

Start getting acquainted with the video games your children know and love, and help them get the most from their digital play by checking out our playbooks. To learn more about the science behind what we do at LearningWorks for Kids, visit our Science of Play page.

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