Making Video Games into Learning during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Are your kids at home playing (or begging you to let them play) video games all day long? I have a word of advice: say “Yes!” – not to day-long binges of video gaming but to more constructive video gameplay or mastering of an app where they need to think, problem-solve, and work on skills that will improve them as people and as students. For children who are inflexible, struggle with transitions, find some games in this listing to work on these skills. If they are disorganized, try mastering some of these apps. For kids who don’t like to read but love to game, try these games. You can find many other games and apps that will help with math, working memory, and time-management skills in our find games and apps search tool. But if you want to make the most of transforming video games into learning during the coronavirus, it will take a bit of effort. You can sign your kids up for one of our fun, video game-based classes on Outschool or you can work on making video games into learning at home, so read on.

There is an overwhelming amount of research connecting gameplay and the use of screen-based technologies to learning. As more kids are using online tools for learning during the coronavirus, we need to ask how we maximize the online learning opportunities presented to our kids and how we make this learning into skills that will help them in real-world problem solving – something we need a lot of today.

It is important to recognize the limitations of screen-based technologies for real-world learning and communication with others. Screen-based learning and communication is often disconnected from the real world, a step away and different from IRL (in real life). Many adults are becoming accustomed to communicating via screens rather than in face-to-face meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, but kids have been using these tools for years in their online gameplay. Adults frequently criticize the younger generation, saying they have lost the ability to look someone in the eye (a skill I think is a bit overrated) or to communicate and engage with others in face-to-face settings. While I agree that there is something missing, the same skills used in online chatting can help to make people experts in face-to-face communication. However, the generalization of these communication skills is still much easier than the complications of transferring game-based skills to the real world.

Perhaps an even more powerful reason that kids do not learn more from their gameplay is that most parents are so minimally involved with their kids’ use of games and technologies. Unlike sports, scouting, religious groups, and homework, parents do not serve as coaches or discussants to help their kids make the connection between game-based learning and real-world skills. And unfortunately, most games do not build in these types of opportunities for learning. But games are incredibly powerful resources for practicing and learning about social-emotional and executive functioning skills that will be necessary for 21st-century success.

Only about 30% of parents play or even observe their kids playing video games, and as a result, these technologies are not nearly as useful for teaching skills as more traditional activities such as sports or playing a family board game. Consider how often parents talk to their kids about their weekly soccer match or softball game. However, very few parents have similar discussions about their children’s daily experience of playing Minecraft or Call of Duty. 

Our suggestion for you during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond is to get used to talking more to your kids about their screen-time activities. Many parents are talking to their kids about safety issues during the pandemic, and having similar discussions about the risk of online activities would also be appropriate. 

To help kids learn more from their gameplay, we suggest the following three talking points. These three steps, which could be applied to almost any learning activities, are steeped in the science of generalization. While this is a bit more involved than three steps, we have simplified the science for you to use to help your children identify some of their strategies in screen-based play, think more about how these skills have helped them, and, we hope – this is the key – apply these skills to other settings. 

These are the same three steps that define the Learning works for Kids method used by our expert instructors  in all of our LW4K classes:

Detect: Ask your children what they need to do to master parts of the game or app they are using. Identifying the skill they used is the first step, and you may need to label the skill for them. For example, if they had to do something quickly, they were probably using time management, while if they had to collect something, they were using organization. To learn more about how executive and social-emotional learning skills are used in gameplay, check out the “digital play tab” of our various thinking skills pages.

Reflect: Ask your children to consider how the skill helped them in the game and how it might be used in their daily lives. This is the metacognitive part of the LW4K method, where thinking about ones’ thinking is essential. This time of reflection allows people to see how a skill helps in screenplay and can also help in the real world. Encourage routine thinking about how executive skills help at home and school​. 

Connect: Tell your children you are letting them play games a bit more during the pandemic so they can learn some new skills, not just get better at games. Have them identify a task or activity where the game-based skill will help them and then challenge them to use it, evaluating how it helped and what needs to be tweaked. For example, see how their game-based thinking helped when they used time management to get their online schoolwork done efficiently. 

These principles may sound simple, but they are complex and not magical. If generalization of skills from one setting to another were easy, every child who did some math problems would be prepared to be an engineer, and taking a year of Spanish classes would make one fluent. You will need to keep working to help your kids learn more from their gameplay. You have the advantage that we use in our LW4K LIVE classes, an engaged, attentive, and persistent learner, and that’s a great start!