Family and Society: February 2007 Archives

The Educational Benefits of Video Games

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Time for me to play the hypocrite. I have no problem with the research that says video games can be educational.

How do I square this with my loathing of Leapfrog and V-Tech? Easily:

Hard data is scant so far--most of the MacArthur-funded research projects are just getting under way--but there's no shortage of anecdotes testifying to the educational benefits of video and computer games and new multimedia tools. Simulation games in particular have already been embraced by some educators, as well as many businesses and the U.S. military, as effective ways to introduce people to environments and situations that would otherwise be too expensive, dangerous or impossible to access.

Kurt Squire, another University of Wisconsin researcher, has been observing students as they play Civilization, a simulation game in which players build historically realistic civilizations and interact with them as they evolve.

"We've got middle-schoolers now who are going to their teachers and saying, `I've built this historical model of the American Revolution, which took about 40-50 hours--can I submit this with a paper about it?'"

My friends, this is a far cry from a giant frog screaming at my kid: "I Love You, SO Much!"

First of all, all the examples offered are for older children than the V-Tech target audience. That's important.

Second, it's not even "educational toys" per se that are thought to have educational value. The researchers in the article instead point to the benefits of certain video games that simulate real-world or historical situations. These are games that make you use reason and knowledge if you wish to be successful. I guess here is where I embarrassingly admit that I've learned more about medieval history and weaponry from playing "The Age of Empires" than I previously knew. Trebuchet? I had no clue until one was laying siege to my kingdom.

Still, there are a couple of important things the article left out. First, these educational benefits can often be missed if a child playing these games doesn't give a crap. A game that takes place in a specific historical context is great, but if that context is incidental to the game - if it serves as a background that doesn't really have to be engaged in order to be successful, then the educational value is diminished.

Second, and this seems to me the more dangerous problem, David Shaffer, quoted in the article as saying, "we spend most of the first six or seven years of math education teaching kids to do what a 99-cent calculator does," seems to be suggesting that technology can replace the need for basic literacy. Sure, computer games can be used as a supplement - a practical application of actual lessons that can help children master concepts - but computers cannot obviate the need for the three R's. Balance is needed. I don't care if a calculator can multiply, my kids are going to learn their tables. And I don't care if the whole world can be run off of machines, kids still need an education in what it means to be human, which means engaging with flesh and blood humans in person and through the ideas of literature and history.

In the end, it falls to parents and educators to integrate technology as a part - yes, an increasingly important part, but still only a part - of a child's human formation.

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Marriage and Muslims

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Stanley Kurtz is making a very interesting argument in a series for NRO that the tradition of cousin marriage in Islamic culture renders those societies incompatible with modern life. This, he says, is the key to understanding the terror war.

I'm a bit torn on this. Kurtz generally does excellent work on marriage and family issues, but he often sounds insane and when talking about war and the middle east. My guess is he'll make a sensible and sobering analysis of Islamic marriage culture and then use it to demagogue on the need to fight more Middle Eastern wars. I'll be very interested to see how he develops the argument and what critics will say.

Here's the first two installments in the series: 1, 2.

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More on Electronic Toys

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Keeping up on this theme, Christine Rosen offers a slightly fleshed out version of this article I blogged last month. And by "fleshed out," I mean there's two extra paragraphs.

Excerpt:

Despite the potential hazards, why are so many children playing with electronic toys? "I think electronic toys are appealing to adults" says Linda Crowe, an associate professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University. "They think, 'Wow! These are really exciting toys; look at all of the wonderful things they can do!" But electronic toys remove social interaction and in many respects may inhibit creativity. The toy provides the fantasy and removes the opportunity for a child to mentally produce something hypothetical or imagined.” Crowe is also concerned about the effect of such toys on children’s brain development. "What's happening neurologically with these kids when they are watching flashing lights and electronic toys versus an old-fashioned play toy? Which areas of the brain are activated and what kinds of neurological connections are being established? I'm seeing outcomes in the form of shorter attention spans, but we don't know exactly what is happening in the brain."

Susan Swanson, who works for the Excelligence Learning Corporation and has been an arts educator in Monterey County, California schools, has similar concerns. "Electronic toys don't encourage dramatic play," she says. "And what is going to happen to these kids who are used to having a quick electronic fix and who think things happen at the push of a button?" she asks. Parents can go to the other extreme too, of course. "I live near Berkeley," Swanson says with a chuckle, "and you can find stores there where the only toys are those made entirely out of recycled tires or natural fibers."

Tech toys are here to stay, of course, in large part because anxious parents fear denying their children any novel advantage. "Parents believe that this is a way for their child to be ready for the academic setting," says Crowe, "and you can't fault parents for that." But she encourages parents to limit their children's use of such toys and to offer more traditional toys (such as building blocks, trains, and dolls) that encourage open-ended, creative play. Children also make their play preferences known, and they are often refreshingly low-tech. When asked by University of Stirling researchers what they most wanted to do during playtime, young children did not beg for quality time with T.M.X. Elmo. They wanted their parents to take them to the park. Sometimes, toddlers know best.

I'm a bit more cynical, so with regard to that first paragraph, I would posit that parents find additional appeal in that these gadgets keep kids out of their hair. Being the father of two toddlers, I can sympathize with folks who are tempted by toys that won't require any assistance beying swapping out double-As. But to tell me that a machine that screams the ABCs at my son is teaching him something at all - let alone in a way better than I could - falls somewhere on a continuum between condescending and insulting.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Family and Society category from February 2007.

Family and Society: January 2007 is the previous archive.

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