Video games and child development
Video games now feature ways to get youngsters moving and learning. But parents need to strike a balance with real play
Gaming is often considered the realm of teenage boys and couch potatoes. But as technology has evolved, consoles have become equipped with features that can appeal to the whole family and get players off their backsides.
Sony's PlayStation, Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Xbox all now have games that encourage movement. Xbox, for example, launched Kinect, its motion sensor, two years ago, in which a virtual character on the screen mirrors players' body movements.
"We're fans of the sports games," says Kenix Chong Wei-peng, a mother of two. "My six-year-old daughter, Vanessa, is very active, but I avoid taking her outdoors because I have to take care of her two-year-old sister, too. We prefer staying home, and that's when Kinect comes in handy; it allows her to move around and burn up excess energy. Sometimes she goes to sleep straight after playing."
Chong adds that the gaming console allows her daughter to experience different situations. "Her father skis, so he'd like her to 'experience' it, as well, so that when she tries it for real, she knows what to expect," she says.
Many parents think of video games as merely entertainment, but developers are also trying to make games educational. Two such Xbox games are Kinect Sesame Street TV and Kinect Nat Geo TV.
"These games foster collaboration and engagement, and encourage a positive attitude towards learning," says Anna Chow, head of marketing for the consumer channels group of Microsoft Hong Kong.
"With the new Playful Learning Initiative at Xbox, children and families can jump into the action with this next generation of television entertainment, and help Elmo or Cookie Monster, for example, with tasks on Sesame Street.
"Likewise, players can explore the natural world with Nat Geo's Wild television shows using intuitive movements and voice recognition. It takes families around the world, expanding their knowledge of language, geography and the environment, while inspiring a sense of wonder and excitement."
Kinect Nat Geo TV comes with 30-minute videos, hosted by naturalist Casey Anderson. With the theme "America the Wild", they feature different wild animals integrated with related games. They take players to different habitats and provide information on the animals' characteristics.
Sidetracks - activated by simply shouting "Track!" when paw print graphics appear - show extra information about the featured animal. Questions such as "What habits do dogs share with foxes?" are asked and answered.
Players become the animal and perform survival tasks learned from the videos. The games become more challenging as players proceed to higher levels: a predator such as a snake will attack owls, or more bears will join in the fight for salmon. Each game reinforces knowledge learned from the videos.
Chong says both games have varied themes that enable Vanessa to exercise and learn at the same time. And while many parents worry their children will be distracted from studying or become addicted to video games, Chong imposes restrictions. She uses the console as an incentive, allowing Vanessa to use it for a limited time after she finishes her homework.
Doris Cheng Pui-wah, associate professor of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of early childhood education, supports the notion of "learning through play", but doubts that video games are the best format and reminds parents to strike a balance when choosing activities for their children.
"Learning through play is important because children can be active learners in a pressure-free environment. It engages their hands, hearts and minds, so it's the best time for learning," says Cheng, who is also the director of the institute's Centre for Childhood Research and Innovation.
"Learning through play is the best way to learn, regardless of age. Adults can handle boredom more easily and put up with things they're not interested in if they have a long-term goal in mind. But children learn best when they are interested in something. It's not as effective when they're force-fed because it's not mindful learning."
She says many middle-class parents are supportive of such "edutainment" tools and thinks that as long as the activity is initiated by the child, learning through play can be effective.
"But parents have to strike a balance, as it mainly enhances cognitive learning. We encourage parents to give children more comprehensive and balanced development in other areas, too, including emotional, physical and aesthetic," Cheng says.
"Although movement is integral to these games, the ultimate aim - such as learning how to count - still tends to focus on a cognitive objective."
She adds that overseas research shows that bombarding children with visual stimuli from electronic devices at an early age may hamper development of the imagination. They become passive receivers, leaving them little room to exercise their imaginations, as everything happens so quickly. It's also uncertain what other problems so many visual stimuli could cause, raising concerns of a possible link with the high number of children now suffering from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
"It's very important to build up children's inner peace and sense of security at a young age for healthy development. This is the opposite of what such stimulus does, and we're not sure when the appropriate time is to expose children to this," Cheng says.
"There are many playful learning alternatives. For instance, art and crafts, doing role play after reading a story or building things from cardboard boxes are fun and allow spontaneous creativity.
"Activities such as going outdoors to be exposed to nature or making sand sculptures at the beach are also recommended. Based on their interests, these activities can be gradually expanded; for example, they can draw pictures based on storybooks they've read and later make a collage out of their drawings.
"And a simple piece of cloth can be used to make accessories or create props in role play and so on. It involves a lot of creativity as well as interaction - with real people."