By Meryl Davids Landau, REDBOOK
For many parents, the mere mention of video games conjures visions of kids' little brains turning to mush from staring at a screen all day. Just ask Claire Teller, a Boca Raton, FL, mom, about her 9-year-old son, Eric. "No matter how much he plays, it's never enough," she says. "Every day, Eric begs for more computer time."
With studies showing that kids spend more time on the computer than ever before-and that violent games can indeed lead kids to think and act aggressively-parents' worries are understandable. But not all video games are harmful. Although you should mix your child's computer time with other activities, "many positive developments occur when kids play high-quality games," says Marc Prensky, author of the recently published Don't Bother Me Mom-I'm Learning! Here's an age-by-age look at the various skills children can build from playing these games, as well as expert picks for the best ones.
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Electronic games can boost learning by cultivating kids' eagerness to master letters, colors, numbers, shapes, and patterns.
What Kids Learn:
1. Prereading skills. Computers are fabulous teachers-able to repeat stories aloud without ever losing patience! Many virtual books feature animation and games, which make reading fun. But skip phonics programs. "They confuse kids who don't yet get that words are made of individual sounds," says James Paul Gee, Ph.D., professor of learning sciences at the University of Wisconsin and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.
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2. School readiness. Preschoolers with access to a computer score 40 percent higher on school-readiness tests, which measure concepts used in school such as time, classification, and direction, says a study at Wayne State University in Athens, OH. Once in the classroom, those same kids do better on cognitive tasks such as grouping objects.
3. Creativity. Drawing on a computer has one major advantage over paint and crayons: The erase button lets kids experiment freely. "Imagine if Michelangelo was able to hit the undo key whenever an idea didn't work out as expected, before carving it in stone," says Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D., editor of the Children's Technology Review newsletter.
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- For computers: Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat features games and surprises when kids click on objects in the drawings. Other picks: Winnie the Pooh Preschool, Arthur's Computer Adventure, and Boohbah (at pbskids.org/boohbah).
For GameCubes and PlayStations: Dora the Explorer Journey to the Purple Planet. Kids guide Dora as she helps her alien friends return home.
- For Game Boys and Nintendo DS: Electroplankton. Kids can create music by moving objects onscreen. Another pick: Blue's Clues: Blue's Alphabet Book.
Grade-schoolers can think logically and sympathize with others. Games that involve role-playing and missions can help develop their cognitive and social skills.
What Kids Learn:
4. Logic. Figuring out how to get a fox over a wall using a rope or a sword may seem silly, but it takes brainpower. "Kids have to form a hypothesis and test it; they have to use the scientific method," says Henry Jenkins, Ph.D., a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And the more kids practice using logic, the better thinkers they become.
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5. Sharper memory. It'll be easier for your child to learn and remember the 112 elements of the periodic table if she's already practiced memorizing the complex details in games such as Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!
6. Teamwork and community. "A great feature of recent games is that kids can play cooperatively as partners," says Buckleitner. Plus, kids are exposed to new ideas-they can tend animals or see where their house is in relation to their country. "Games can inspire kids to think about the broader world, and help them discover other interests," says Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, M.D., a pediatrician in Chapel Hill, NC, and an American Academy of Pediatrics media expert.
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For computers: Spy Fox 3: Operation Ozone. The James Bond of the elementary school set, Spy Fox uses gadgets to prevent the destruction of the ozone. Other picks: Zoombinis Logical Journey, earth.google.com, and food-force.com.
For GameCubes and PlayStations: Mario Party. This virtual board game lets kids play "mini games" while they wait their turn. Other picks: Pokemon Colosseum, Yu-Gi-Oh! Forbidden Memories, Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life.
- For Game Boys and Nintendo DS: Pokemon FireRed or LeafGreen. Kids train Pokemon to compete against opponents. Other picks: Mario Kart DS and Nintendogs.
Once kids are old enough to think through what to do in a given situation before acting, the right games will hone their mental and social skills.
What Kids Learn:
7. Mastery of reading. "Reading difficulties often occur around fourth grade, when kids encounter more complex language, especially in science," says Gee. Games like Yu-Gi-Oh!, which involves deciphering phrases such as "walls of revealing light," require that kids grasp different shades of meaning in complex language. That helps them conceptualize what words mean in new contexts.
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8. Relationship tools. Some games have characters created to experience emotions as humans do, so kids can learn to process their feelings through them. "One girl I knew would turn her real friends into characters in her Sims game, then play-act to explore issues she was having with them," Gee says. "Seeing her friends' points of view gave her a better perspective on her relationships."
9. History and science. Many programs are based on real facts-so your child can learn about ancient Egypt or baseball while playing, especially if you supplement the games with books on the topic once their interest is piqued.
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- For computers: The Sims 2. The ultimate dollhouse lets kids create characters and manage their lives. Other picks: The Nancy Drew series and Microsoft Flight Simulator.
For GameCubes and PlayStations: Tak: The Great Juju Challenge. Kids use teamwork in a competition to win an award. Other picks: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Backyard Basketball, and Madden NFL.
- For Game Boys and Nintendo DS: Age of Empires: The Age of Kings. Kids help a civilization survive and thrive.
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.