As a child in the 90s, I was not allowed to play on a video game console or on the computer. Although many of my friends played video games frequently, my parents saw these games as harmful. Instead, they taught me and my sister card games, and we played board games at least twice a week. Later, when I was in my twenties and started using a game console to practice yoga and play tennis, I thought, this can’t be harmful, it combines fun with physical activity!

Since becoming a developmental psychologist, I have often wondered whether there are measurable benefits or disadvantages to playing games – particularly video games, which are often vilified. I’m currently studying the link between playing games and children’s cognitive development. The media – and therefore also research – often focus more on potential harms than on possible benefits; however, we owe it to children to learn more about both.

Playful learning and modern games

Playing games promotes development by providing children with opportunities for exploration and firsthand experience acquiring skills they will need in the real world. Although the main goal of play is to have fun, it is also a natural way to learn. The turn-taking involved in games helps children learn to control their emotions and desires, which is especially important in difficult situations. By learning to wait their turn, they also develop impulse control and the ability to control their reactions and manage their desire for immediate gratification. Memorizing game rules also teaches them to retain information. By engaging in role-playing, children learn to view a situation from a variety of perspectives.

Play also allows children to practice communication and behavior regulation – learning, for example, that throwing board game pieces or the game controller in anger is not acceptable. Dealing with the frustration of losing a game or getting a low score helps them build cognitive skills, such as learning rules, devising strategies, and sustaining attention over an extended period, but also socioemotional skills, including self-regulation and empathy. Different play behaviors are beneficial for different skills.

“Although the main goal of play is to have fun, it is also a natural way to learn.”

During the second half of the 20th century, researchers focused on board and card games as a way of assessing a child’s home learning environment. The information parents provided about the games they had at home shed light on how children learn about numbers. The more games parents reported having at home, the better their children’s early numerical skills. If parents were able to list those games, they probably played them, and this led to an increase in their children’s mathematical knowledge.

A more recent development is exergaming – a portmanteau of “exercise” and “gaming.” Exergames are computer games that require focused attention, quick decision-making, competition, body coordination, and agility. They challenge a wide array of cognitive and sensory capabilities while the body is in motion.

Given this diversity of formats, it is impossible to conclude that overall, video games are either beneficial or harmful for children. With an estimated 75% of children today playing exergames and other video games, it makes little sense to discourage their use. Instead, we need to accept the fact that they are a major part of children’s daily lives. Reassuringly, studies tend to indicate that gaming is not harmful, but rather contributes to learning. Players of first- and third-person shooter and action video games, for example, develop better sustained attention and focus. But I wanted to know about the kinds of games that kindergarteners play.

Are games beneficial for cognitive development?

My colleagues and I set out to examine the impacts of different types of games on kindergarteners’ cognitive development. We asked the parents of 97 kindergarteners how often their children played various types of games at home. We also tested the children on tasks measuring impulse control, the ability to shift their focus of attention, and the ability to retain information temporarily – in kindergarten at age 6, and then 18 months later. The children in our study played games to 2-3 times a week, for an average of 30 minutes per session.

As expected, we found that the more children played classic board and card games, the better their impulse control. Surprisingly, the more they engaged in video puzzle games, like Memory or Tetris, the worse they were at shifting their focus of attention. Children who played more exergames at age 6, however, were better at shifting their focus of attention 18 months later. What might explain this apparent advantage over puzzle games? Unlike puzzle games, exergames combine sustained physical engagement with cognitive activity; puzzle games may therefore be less challenging and require less shifting of the child’s attention. We found no link between impulse control, the ability to shift attention, or the ability to retain information and playing the other types of video games we asked about, namely those requiring the player to engage in three-dimensional navigation and to balance objects.

“Video games, in moderation, appear to pose no risk to children’s development; indeed, they seem to produce certain benefits.”

Parents may be relieved to know that video games, in moderation, appear to pose no risk to children’s development; indeed, they seem to produce certain benefits. These benefits may be greater when children engage in a variety of games that challenge different skills, such as solving a puzzle, which can enhance spatial skills, playing a board game that requires thinking before acting, or playing an exergame that involves moving in new ways. Given how this topic has been covered in the media, I can certainly understand why my parents were reluctant to allow me to play video games back in the 90s. We now know, however, that playing games can benefit children even in kindergarten – they can have fun and acquire new skills at the same time.

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