For Parents: Digital Games – Distraction or Learning Tools?

By Ryan L. Schaaf 

Today, many parents struggle with complex dilemmas as they try to raise strong, vibrant kids and mold them into empathic, global citizens. One such contemporary quandary involves identifying the place of games in their children’s lives. This post provides some pragmatic advice to help parents make up their minds about games.

Screen Time: The Great Debate

The debate rages on about screen time and its effects on the digital generations. Some sources claim that too much screen time amongst pre-teens can impact the ability for them to read human emotions. Others, such as this article from the Mayo Clinic, link an overabundance of screen time to childhood obesity and irregular sleeping patterns. These issues are concerning and do raise some red flags. However, there is also concrete research showing some forms of screen time can positively impact a child’s psychological development, can help them learn and retain new content, and can foster creativity, problem-solving, and discovery.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recently published new suggestions for families to practice a healthy media diet. (AAP, 2016)

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid the use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

Games: A Natural Method of Learning

Games are a natural method of learning. If you look at the animal kingdom, you see puppies pouncing on each other with wagging tails, kangaroo joeys boxing, and river otters sliding down a mud bank. Humans spend most of their childhood learning through gameplay. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist and philosopher developed the theory of cognitive development. He observed that play, as a vehicle for human development, was one of the most important functions of childhood. He theorized that play creates a relaxed atmosphere for learning to occur. Humans use play to understand social dynamics, exercise imagination and creativity and experiment with materials and resources. Now, fast-forward to the digital age. Humans are still exploring these facets of cognitive play. The tools and resources humans use may have changed with technological innovation, but the cognitive skills and processes continue to be utilized in today’s gameplay.

Learning through Failure

Karl Kapp, Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University, made this observation about the benefits of failure in games, “In games, unlike many other activities, exploring failure and what it means is a valued approach. Players enjoy failures in a game, or at least use them to progress” (2012, p. 48). In general, digital and non-digital games provide a breeding ground for perseverance. Life is filled with difficult trials: job loss, death, economic woes, and self-doubt. Gameplay helps to hone the attitude of, ‘if you fall down, then get back up, dust yourself off, try again and move forward’. Failing forward, as many games perpetuate, helps cultivate perseverance, grit, resilience, and goal-setting.

Media Mentors

Parents make hundreds of decisions a day for the betterment of their children. Nowadays, with the proliferation of digital devices and the presence of the digital landscape, parents must use their best judgement when setting guidelines and establishing boundaries regarding screen time with their children. As a practical takeaway, parents must be media mentors for their children. They can monitor and restrict media use when needed, evaluate content, and help their children maintain a balance of both digital and non-digital experiences.


Adachi, P., & Willoughby, T. (2012). Do video games promote positive youth development? Journal of Adolescent Research.

American Academy of Pediatrics (2016). American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use.

Common Sense Media. (2013). Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America 2013.

Kapp, K. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Mayo Clinic. (2017). Screen time and children – How to guide your children.

Olson, C. (2010). Children’s motivations for video game play in the context of normal development. American Psychological Association.

Uhls, Y., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G., Zgourou, E., Greenfield, P. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior (9), pp. 387-392.