How Video Games can Educate Children

There is an interesting, albeit controversial talk on TED by Gabe Zichermann about how video games can make kids smarter. Personally, I thought the talk was somewhat skewed towards video games. Although the intention was supposed to have been to provide perspective and to talk about how video games can be also be beneficial instead of adopting an all or nothing attitude, the insinuation that reading a book on a Sunday afternoon sipping herbal tea will become obsolete seems to suggest otherwise. Perhaps he should have left that part out…

Anyway, back to the talk and its good points. The problem with computers and video games is the same as the problem we have with TV. When we talk about them in relation to our children, there is a tendency to condemn them and view them in a negative light. While we openly proclaim our hearty agreement that screen time is bad, we also confess our negligence in allowing our children to watch TV and play computer games. And yet, any parent knows that if we were serious about the conviction that TV and computers are bad, then what we really should be doing is cutting them out of our lives – completely. There’s no use telling our children that TV and computers are bad for them while we spend half a day in front of a screen (be it the TV, a computer screen, or even our smart phones).

This is where I stand – some TV and computers are fine. And I agree with Zichermann – they can even be good for children. I don’t like it when the children spend too much time in front of a screen, but I don’t think all screen time is bad. Neither do I think addiction is a problem. People talk about the evils of TV and computer game addictions like somehow it’s worse when you’re using a screen, but addiction is not unique to these activities. You can be addicted to anything. At one point of my life, I was addicted to rock climbing. Seriously. It got so bad that it was interfering with my personal life and affecting my relationships with anyone that wasn’t into rock climbing. Once I was so late for a family dinner that my aunt called me to tell me not to bother showing up because they were getting ready to leave the restaurant.

So now my general rule is: “everything in moderation”.

If you want to see the talk by Gabe Zichermann, here it is:

If you aren’t convinced that computer games can help children, an inspiring story to listen to is Ananth Pai’s (see the results). Ananth Pai is a teacher in elementary school who discovered that “7 out of 10 3rd graders are not proficient in math when they graduate to the 4th grade. They are not reading at all, much less at a third grade level. And he learned that if they cannot do things by the end of the 3rd grade, the decline will begin in earnest from there.” So he decided to change the system by introducing video games into his classroom. He brought in computers and Nintendo DS’s and he let his student play educational video games in class and these were his results:

In 18 weeks, the children went from below 3rd grade level in reading and math to a mid-4th grade level in reading and math. They were excited about learning and said that class was “fun”.

There is a short video clip demonstrating Pai’s class in operation:

We all know from experience that learning takes place more easily and quickly if we’re having fun. Retention rates are also better when we enjoy what we’re doing. If playing a computer game can achieve this more effectively than an existing method of learning, then shouldn’t we be embracing it rather than condemning the methods because “screen time” is bad? As I said earlier – everything in moderation. So rather than trying to avoid video games and TV altogether, we should include them simply as one of our many tools for educating our children and stop feeling guilty about using them.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

8 thoughts on “How Video Games can Educate Children

  1. I was an avid video gamer since Primary 2, when I received my first Nintendo as a present. It continued through primary school, when I’d go to neighbour’s house to play games as well until midnight, during school holidays. We were really good at the games and ranked top 3 in the entire school. Definitely no negative impact on results. And no addiction too, since we played more during holidays and moderately during school term.

    I stopped playing video games when older because I realized I’ve the tendency to be addicted to them, and would skip eating and sleeping just to get to higher levels. Giving up the games allowed me to lead a healthier life.

    Few years back, I read on the news that research has shown than surgeons who are good at gaming performed more accurately during surgery, when they’re required to use computers to help with precision surgery. Makes sense…

    That said, I’m not letting my boys play computer games at a very young age, when their right brain should be taking a main role. Lots of learning through real life and play first. Computer games can start during primary school, as long as not to an addictive level.

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    1. Hi MieVee – Yes, I agree that there can be an addictive element to video games. I played them a lot during my school breaks, too, but I think I was susceptible to doing that because my parents were pretty strict about letting me go out. Without other avenues of activities open to me, I can see why it was all I ever did during my school breaks. Then again, I also had phases of intense reading – lots of sessions at the library and reading book after book (novels, of course) into the wee hours of the night when my parents would storm into my room and tell me off for not going to sleep.

      I think there can be addiction to anything and that’s where parental influence and guidance comes in.

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  2. Yeah, I think certain programs are just good to have.

    But this videoclip of Ananth Pai sent me a message that video games are perhaps needed to hook the children’s interests into learning certain subjects, based on videoclip, sounds like that applies more to low performance or less focused children……. Wondering if they also use video games to teach maths the same way to high achieving children in America.

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    1. Fz – yes, I agree that there are holes in Ananth Pai’s work with the video games in class, but I do commend him for creating good out of what was clearly a losing situation. If I were a parent of one of those children in his class, I would be most grateful to him.

      What I think his work highlights is the inadequacy of the school system. His problem was one teacher to many students who are all at different levels. What ends up happening is that the weaker students are forced to keep pace even when they don’t understand the work. As a result, they get lost in the school system and continue to struggle year after year. His answer was to introduce video games that allowed one teacher to cater to the individual needs of many students and meet them at their level.

      I can think of one other way to solve such a problem – homeschooling. There’s one way of ensuring that a child receives the necessary attention required to meet them at their level and ensure that they understand what they are learning before they move on to the next level.

      I guess what Ananth Pai’s work shows is that video games can be one way of helping to solve this problem in schools. It may not be the best way or the only way, but it is clearly achieving its goals.

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  3. Shen-Li: I’m still having phases of intense reading at this age! On some nights, I’d read to 4-5am until hubby wants to tell me off. No more parental guidance, but needs spousal guidance at times. Ha…

    That said, I believe the tendency for addictive behavior depends on personality. I can develop obsessive tendency to things which I’m really passionate about. And traits such as super-long attention span, intense focus, etc.

    The addiction to video games can be fatal for some people though, because it draws them very deeply into a virtual world and lose connection with the real world. I read an article about a young couple who played video games and left their newborn to starve to death. Totally crazy news.

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    1. Mie Vee – hahaha… yeah, hubby tells me off, too! :-p

      As for addictive behaviour – yes, it’s true. I remember when we were in Melbourne and the casino first opened, there were so many stories in the papers about parents leaving their children in the car while they went off to the casino to gamble. It was really embarassing because in most of those cases, the parents were usually Chinese. I also knew a student in Uni who failed because he spent so much time at the casino and would skip lectures for it. Another friend managed to scrape through and that was a real wake up call for him.

      In some ways I think there is a very fine line between the obsessive tendency towards things we are passionate about (e.g. me with rock climbing) and addiction to a specific activity. Without having that focus and attention, it’s hard to get good at things and yet being too obsessive to the point of ignoring all else is also not healthy.

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