NewTechKids discussed the pros and cons of video games and gaming with Matteo Rinaldi, who graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a Master’s of Science, specializing in Communication Science, Persuasive and Entertainment Communication. One of his research areas focused on media and children’s development.

He wrote the blog post below based on his Masters research. It outlines his views on the benefits of gaming and his top recommendations for video games and gaming apps for kids ages 3-18.

Do children learn from play? Yes. Do they learn from media? Research is clear: another yes.

But do children learn from playing with media such as video games? Parents, caregivers and teachers: if the right game is chosen and it is used the right way, the answer is still yes.

Children and gaming is a very delicate issue. Many parents are concerned about the effects of video games on their kids. Certain advocacy groups and the media push an agenda mainly depicting video games as dangerous and causing a range of negative cognitive and physical problems.

However, there is much more to it. Indeed, research has shown that video games benefit children in a variety of ways, especially helping them developing better problem-solving skills which are useful in everyday life as well as future study and career pursuits.

Digital play not only helps children regulate their emotions and strengthen their social skills. My research also shows that gaming boosts children’s learning and information retention skills better than traditional teaching because games create the best learning environments where learning is:

  • active
  • experience- and problem-solving based
  • oriented towards immediate feedback

Many games are proactively tailored to the learner, creating a opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills which stimulate “spaces” of growth where the player is motivated to engage in learning through challenges with just the right difficulty (what research labels “optimal discrepancy”).

These characteristics have been proven to be especially good for the development of problem-solving skills and metacognitive abilities: knowing what one knows and how well, which processes are better at reaching a certain objective, and how to apply knowledge to different situations and domains. This is critical for not only for the academic setting but also for everyday life and the workplace.

But how can parents, caregivers and teachers choose among the astonishing number and genre of video games and apps available for kids? Which games are better for developing specific skills?

Here are my top recommendations for games which can boost children’s problem-solving skills, divided according to age ranges. I have based these recommendations on my research as well as familiarity with the game.

AGES 3-5 
The game is well-suited for this age group as it has to do with the very basic functions of children’s brains: colours, shape recognition, minimal hand skill (they just need to touch the screen). It also allows kids to start thinking processes about what they are doing in order to complete the game e.g. What is the best colour to tap on if I want to paint all of the screen red?). Watch how it works. 
  • Platforms: Android, iPad, Console, iPod
  • Skills your child will develop: information processing and management, development of hand eye coordination, problem-solving skills
  • Pros: colourful, bright with good contrast, good design with a trial and error game style
  • Cons: It might get boring after a short amount of time due to the rigid game environment
  • Similar Games: Tetris, Puzzle Bubble
AGES 5-8 
Game: Minecraft
Minecraft is probably one of the best games out there to develop problem-solving skills. It is well-renowned among this age group and also among older children. This means that playing it encourages social inclusiveness between your child and other children, both online and offline. Watch how it works. 
  • Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Wii U, Nintendo Switch, macOS, Linux, PlayStation Vita, Android, iOS, Nintendo 3DS
  • Skills your child will develop: spatial ability, creativity, resource management, problem-solving skills, high order thinking
  • Pros: The game allows kids to:
  • Express creativity through the creation of different buildings and structures, with virtually any shape and function (a house that resembles a mountain, an exact replica of a Star Wars starship).
    • Develop resource management and organizational skills. Since everything in Minecraft’s game environment can be destroyed, the player can collect a variety of resources to create and build objects through creative algorithms (e.g. on the creation menu, you need to dispose of three pieces of wood and one rock in a certain way to build a shovel which you need to dig faster and collect new materials).
    • Develop high-order thinking: to create new tools and build better buildings, children need to understand which resources they need, where to find them and which tool is better for collection. The limited amount of materials will force them to establish an order of priority to solve the most pressing problems first, otherwise he would end up without enough material to progress in the game.
  • Cons: virtually a game with no ending so parents need to control the time their children play. The game also allows for a single player campaign with or without enemies in the map which reduces the amount of ‘violence’ and conflict (which is already minimal in the game). For  online co-op games, parental control is advised to ensure a safe game environment for children.
  • Similar Game: Lightbot: Code Hour
AGES 9-13 
The Professor Layton franchise let your kid engage in problem solving activities while solving enigmas and puzzles to advance in the game. Watch how it works. 
  • Platforms: Depending on the game, including Nintendo 3DS, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch
  • Skills your child will develop: metacognitive skills and high order thinking, mathematical and logic skills, memory skills, self-regulation and self-control
  • Pros: There are in-game tips to explain puzzles and enigmas which are too difficult. The problems vary from mathematical and geometrical to visual (e.g. recognizing the right shape of a tool to open a door). The game virtually allows for infinite attempts, giving children the opportunity to learn through mistakes. Professor Layton is a great game that parents, caregivers and teachers can play with children as some of the enigmas are stimulating enough to also entertain adults.
  • Cons: the replayability of the game is low: once an enigma has been solved, there is no point in playing it again. However, each game provides an adequate number of challenges.
  • Similar Games: Forza Horizon, Gran Turismo
AGES 13-18
These games allow children to develop their own fictional countries and cities. The player manages resources, engages in diplomacy with other players (online or offline) and develops strategies to solve problems (e.g. “My citizens are hungry. Should I invest my gold to build farms or a fish pond?”).
 These games also have historical campaigns illustrating the technologies and art of past cultures (Romans, Egyptians) and animals (Jurassic Park Evolution). Watch how it works. 
  • Platforms: Depending on the versions – Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS, Nintendo 3DS
  • Skills your child will develop: problem-solving, resource management, high-order thinking, historical knowledge
  • Pros: Immersive environments, introduces dilemmas, encourages kids to practise judgement and strategy.
  • Cons: Light, non-graphic violence (armies clash and dinosaurs fight) but this is not the core focus of the games.
Photo Credit: Enrique Vidal Flores on Unsplash