“Play is the work of the child,” observed famed educator Maria Montessori.
But Montessori never held an iPad in her hands, let alone a virtual reality headset.
As grown-ups, we tend to draw a hard line between work (which is meant to be productive) and play (which isn’t).
But in the world of the child, nothing could be further from the truth. It is through play that kids learn how to think, how to communicate, how to connect with others - and of course how to tap into their creativity.
Yet many parents persist in the belief that screen-based games are a waste of time for children.
Are they? Is digital play fundamentally different from “analog” (or non-digital) play, or fundamentally similar? Are digital games of lesser value for our children’s development? What skills, competencies and habits of mind does the “digital sandbox” encourage? And finally - what can parents do to ensure that screen-based play stays positive and delivers maximum fun AND maximum benefits?
Researchers define play as “activities that are freely chosen and directed and arise from intrinsic motivation.” More simply, play is any activity kids pursue for its own sake - not because they have to, or because it’s good for them, or because adults approve.
No matter what form it takes - or on what platform it takes place - play is the primary way that young children learn. That said, today’s digital generation are in some respects learning different lessons and developing different skills. But experts are quick to point out they are also poised to enter a different world.
“Sixty-five percent of kids today are going to grow up to have jobs that don’t even exist today,” notes Dr. Jodi Sherman Levos, director of child development & learning at Mattel. “So we have a mission - as parents, educators, and thought leaders - to prepare kids for a future that we don’t fully understand.”
The good news
But even by the standards of the present day, researchers in the field of digital play are emphatic that technology is not on the whole degrading kids’ play - it’s enhancing it. That’s good news for parents.
Think about dinosaurs
Think about dinosaurs, suggests Sara DeWitt, Vice President of PBS Kids Digital. “If a child is really into dinosaurs, technology can make the child feel they’ve been transported to prehistoric times - they can explore different dinosaur species through many apps that bring that world to life.”
Immersive digital play of this kind - play that is self-directed and moves kids toward a higher level of mastery - would have made Maria Montessori turn cartwheels.
Multiplayer games and ‘worlds’ that allow kids to connect and collaborate add yet another dimension. They help children develop social skills - turn-taking, negotiation, respect for rules, active listening, and so on. Those benefits are often overlooked when we focus too narrowly on the potential dangers of kids connecting with others online.
Anti-social or pro-social?
As mums and dads, we worry that screen-time will isolate our kids and encourage anti-social behaviour. But a growing body of evidence is showing that digital play has the potential to do just the opposite. It may even be helping kids develop empathy. “That’s not surprising,” notes researcher Jordan Shapiro, “when you consider the extent to which it strengthens the capacity for communication and offers exposure to diverse ideas and images.”
“Add the right guidance and mentoring,” Shapiro adds, “and digital experiences can help lay a foundation for life-long tolerance and open-mindedness.”
In his 2018 report “A Guide to Digital Play for Global Citizens,” Shapiro argues that today’s online global sandboxes are preparing kids to take their place in a world governed by new technological, economic and geopolitical realities. High-tech games and apps, he points out, demand higher-order thinking skills. They provide training with cutting-edge networked tools. They teach the lesson that technology is an instrument that human minds command and control.
Kids who play sophisticated games online, in short, may be “procuring habits of mind for a connected world.”
Or they may not. Because, as most mums and dads are aware, there’s an equally impressive raft of data that warns against the potential risks of online play - from cyberbullying and sleep deprivation to child abuse and compulsive use.
So what can parents do to ensure their kids get the best out of their online playtime?
For younger kids, experts agree that the best kind of high-tech play “involves quality engagement in short bursts that then gets kids interested,” according to a panel of child development and digital media experts convened recently by the advocacy group The Genius of Play. “A successful app isn’t an app that draws a kid in for 45 minutes straight. That’s a terrible play pattern, especially for a pre-schooler.”
Parents who share online experiences with their children - playing games side-by-side with them, at least occasionally, and engaging in regular conversations about kids’ digital adventures - can do so much to maximise benefits and minimise risks. Bonus: you’ll be setting your children up for good digital citizenship as they move into their teen years and are exposed to more online challenges.
This can be tricky to assess. Don’t be seduced by the word “educational.” Equally, don’t assume that because a game is fun and more-ish, it’s low quality. Try to work out whether the game
- Promotes cognitive skills
- Builds language skills
- Encourages social skills
- Demands creativity and problem-solving
If you’re not sure, ask your child what she loves about the game, and then get her to show you how to play. You may be surprised by what you learn.
If there’s a single golden rule of positive digital play, it’s this one: namely, ensuring balance between digital play and analog play - basically anything that doesn’t involve a screen, from an unstructured, make-believe game to Monopoly. What exactly balance may mean in the context of your family is your decision as a parent. Should you aim for a 50/50 split? Balance outdoor activity with sedentary play? Allow an hour of internet for every two hours of offline play?
The choice is yours. The important thing is to recognise that making the choice is important - and to make it deliberately.
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