“Mom, can I play with the tablet?” This used to be a question that would have me fraught with anxiety. I knew the lure of playing games on a device was strong for my seven-year-old son. I would usually respond haltingly that it was ok and set a timer on the stove for 20-30 minutes. My son would quickly run to our bedroom — where the tablet is kept so that we can limit access — and pick up playing a video game like an old pro.
I used to worry about this screen time, and how mesmerized he got by these games. It also unnerved me that he would sometimes take unflattering pictures of me with that tablet when I wasn’t looking. It was safe to say that the tablet and I were enemies until one day when he asked me an unusual question: “Mom, where is Barcelona?”
I wasn’t sure where this sudden interest was coming from, but we went to check our world map placemat and I pointed out the city to him. The next day he had another question: “Mom, what country is this flag from?”
I looked up to the TV, where he had been watching YouTube videos of other people playing video games (sigh) to see a black, yellow and red striped flag next to the cartoon player. We did a quick online search. “Belgium!” he exclaimed. Then we looked that up on the map, too.
It didn’t take long for me to put it together that Subway Surfers was to blame — I mean, thank? — for my son’s sudden interest in world geography.
The location of the game (in which a runner bounding across the tops of subway cars and tries to escape the police) changes daily, and my son was curious about where in the world his player was running. Ok, so maybe the part about dodging the police is not exactly parent-approved viewing, but I was thrilled when he suggested we go to the library and get an atlas.
I know that not all video games are going to spur an interest like this. And I’m certainly not advocating that we start letting kids play Grand Theft Auto in the classroom. But seeing my son’s sudden real-world passion spring from his digital activities made me realize, sheepishly, that video games are not all just gratuitous, wasteful time-sucks. On the contrary; they made my little guy curious about the world around him and have quite possibly provided him with what could be a lifelong interest in travel and different cultures (and, yes, flags).
For my daughter (my son’s twin sister) video games hold a different, but equally significant meaning. She has an autism spectrum disorder, and the way she learns at her school is through positive reinforcement. Her preferred item as a reward for the hard work she does? More often than not, it’s a chance to play a game on the tablet. Some of the educational video games she plays have taught or allowed her to practice skills such as number and letter identification, matching, tracing and recognizing sizes, shapes, and even emotions. But she also likes to play Fruit Ninja, a game that has very little, if any, educational value — but it allows her to participate in something that her peers also play and enjoy.
When things go wrong, video games are an easy scapegoat. They’re supposedly “what’s wrong with our youth.” But what if, instead of blanket-statement viewing all of these games as detriments to our kids’ educations, we instead viewed them as a springboard for kids to connect with the world around them? I know that’s been the case for my kids, at least. That and, you know, also sometimes watching funny cat videos.
So while I’ll still keep setting that stove timer when my son asks to play his games, I no longer worry that his brain is being eaten away by screen time. In fact, I have a newfound appreciation for his ability to find a meaningful takeaway from what seemed — to me — like mindless entertainment. And whether his success with and learning from video games is because of the values my husband and I tried to instill in him, or just the fact that he’s a smart little guy, I’m not sure. But I know that there’s a place for video games in his life as long as we stay vigilant about limitations and boundaries.
And as for my daughter, while I want her interests to broaden beyond the screen and more towards interacting with people, I can see the value in her tablet time, too. Standing in a Dave & Busters for a kid’s birthday party, I watched as she jumped up and down in front of the tablet screen, slicing and dicing watermelons and pineapples like a boss. And when another child stood next to her watching her play the game, I smiled.
Yes, my kids play video games, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. I just wish they would stop taking pictures of my butt when I’m cooking.