Do Kids Learn From Video Game and Screen Time?

learning through digital play

Throughout the 1990’s and the first decade of the 21st century, most educators,  pediatricians, psychologists, and other child care professionals viewed video-game play as a waste of time. While early games such as Pac-Man and Asteroids tapped into just simple skills, even these games often required some cognitive engagement. Newer video games provide an array of opportunities for learning, including social emotional learning (SEL ), resilience, and executive-functioning skills.

It goes without saying that the most prominent skill that children learn when playing a video games is how to get better at the game and, indirectly, how to play other video games. But let’s not let that obscure the other learning that goes on. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that children learn problem-solving, executive-functioning, and academic skills through video-game play. In addition, the cognitive challenges of video games have been demonstrated to lead to physical brain growth. When parents ask me if kids can learn from video games and screen time, I point out that this is an interest that can lead to an expertise with technology and directly to a future vocational choice. Because video games and screen play are often highly focused, persistent, and motivated, they provide an incredible opportunity for learning. This is why many leading educators are exploring how to make game-based learning into a core approach in the classroom.

I wrote about the importance of digital play for learning in 21st century children in my book, Playing Smarter in a Digital World, and would like to share an excerpt from it:

Digital Play Equals Learning

For children, play equals learning. Prominent developmental psychologists such as David Elkind (in his book The power of play and Dorothy and Jerome Singer (in their book Imagination and play in the electronic age) have identified play as the core ingredient for learning in a child’s world. Early works by Elkind and the Singers did not even mention digital or electronic play or consider video games and electronic toys as tools for learning. However in their more recent writing, these authors acknowledge the potential of screen-based media for learning, although they continue to express a preference for traditional unstructured and free play. But if play is going to continue as a major tool for children’s learning, we need a better understanding of how and what they might learn from video games, apps, and technology.

American children now spend 50% less time outdoors than they did in the 1980’s and less than 30 minutes per day in unstructured play. This is due in part to the demands of school and families with two parents working outside the home, but some of this change can be attributed to the increasing portion of what constitutes children’s play that now revolves around the use of electronics and screen-based media. In this book I describe these activities as “digital play.”

As with traditional play, there is compelling evidence that children learn from digital play. There is a common misconception that children’s involvement in digital media is a waste of time and that it holds little or no educational value.  This “we did things differently when I was a kid” perspective is clearly unsupported by the vast amount of literature and research in this area. Video games have been demonstrated to reinforce the learning of  academic content, improve working-memory and processing capacities; assist children in developing visual-spatial skills, leadership, and communication skills; and enhance creativity and task persistence.

learning through digital play

photo credit Kelly Sikkema

I propose that much of  children’s use of digital media is just another form of play and that, as with any other form of play, it leads to learning. Some types of digital play are typically more productive than others. Searching the Internet and engaging in puzzle, strategy, and educational games generally have more educational potential than watching television sitcoms or playing first-person shooter or fighting games. Nonetheless, there is a clear consensus that even some of the more “mindless” video games and technologies can lead to learning. Traditional play and digital play change the structure of the brain and lead to the acquisition of factual knowledge; the development of physical, social, and emotional skills; and a variety of cognitive capacities.

Digital play can directly teach reading, math, and spatial skills, as well. Thousands of apps and games have been designed to practice and improve underlying skills that support academic progress. Games such as Reader Rabbit, a reading game with animation and puzzles from 2001, and Math Blaster, a computer game that combined saving with the world while completing math problems, were standards. These games are considered to be antiques in today’s rapidly-changing digital world. Now many of the best academic games and apps can be found online such as Brainpop, Brainpop Jr., Curiosityville, ABC Mouse, Whyville, IXL Learning, DreamBox Learning, and the Khan Academy.

Digital play is also an opportunity for indirect learning and development of skills such as working memory, problem solving, organization, creativity, and cognitive flexibility. For example, the process of learning how to “beat” a video game or to use a video camera and Photoshop to create a YouTube video requires a variety of critical-thinking skills such as planning, sustained focus, and time management.  Popular video games and social networking often require learning how to handle frustration, appropriately collaborate or compete with others, and apply social skills.

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