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Can "Online Games" Help Your Child Become Smarter?

Updated on March 16, 2008

Let me start by stating that what I mean by "Online Games" in this article are educational activities on sites like Sesame Street, PBS Kids and Fun Brain. These 'games' are designed to be fun and engaging AND have educational value at the same time.

You can find a variety of activities on sites like PBS Kids relating to:

  • Reading/Language Arts
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Art
  • Music

While there are sites that charge you to access their content there are sites that actually provide great content for FREE. For example, Starfall.com has a wonderful site aimed at young kids who are just learning to read. They can practice recognizing letters, identifying letter sounds and read simple stories with fun graphics.

An audio storybook from starfall.com
An audio storybook from starfall.com

The PBS Kids Cyberchase website is an award winning site that has a ton of free content presented in a fun and engaging way with cool colors and characters. There are games to teach kids about saving all kinds of math concepts including budgeting money, adding numbers, understanding measurement etc. The site is targeted at students in upper elementary grade levels though younger kids might still find the games engaging.

So can playing these 'games' really help a child learn?

While some parents and teachers vehemently denounce all forms of online games there is research that supports the idea that specific types of online learning can actually help some students, particularly those that are struggling in school and falling behind. In other words, playing games online could actually help your child perform better in school?

But what's so special about online games?

Motivation is Magic - Suprise! Surprise! When kids have fun they learn better. When they feel motivated they get excited about learning and want to continue to explore concepts.

Immediate Feedback - I don't like to make this analogy but just like when you're trying to teach a puppy how to perform a trick (and I am NOT insinuating that kids are little animals by the way!) it is better if you let the puppy know right away if they did something wrong or right. Kids love being able to see immediately how they are doing on an activity so they can quickly correct themselves and move on. You don't get the exact same effect if you give a child a worksheet and correct it hours or days later.

Positive Reinforcement! - Kids love to be praised, every parent knows that. They love to collect things whether it is points or stars or little alien creatures. I once had a heart breaking experience of seeing a child after hearing a character say "Good job! You're smart" say to me "for once..." Parents and teachers are busy and sometimes it helps kids to hear it from a friendly face (even if it is 'non human' - young children can perceive these characters as friends).

No judgement - For kids who are struggling in school or who have behavioral problems, they sometimes welcome the fact that an adult will not be judging their performance and it is OK to make mistakes. They understand that it is a computer and feel it is 'just a game'.

Multi-media, multiple modalities - online learning is attractive to kids because it often has sound, graphics and requires that kids 'do' something to interact with the program. This touches on all the modalities (audio, visual and kinesthetic) which is an important part of how human beings learn. A 9-year old once explained to me why he liked to learn vocabulary online. "If I don't know how to say a word, I just click on it to hear it and then I can click here to see the meaning. That way when I see the word later in my books then I remember what it means"

So playing 'games' online may not be such a bad thing after all experts say if the following guidelines are followed:

1) Ensure the site is age-appropriate or find activities on the site targeted to your child's age range. Otherwise your child might get frustrated if the content is too hard or they may get bored if the content is too easy.

2) Explore the site together. Especially if your child is young they may not have the skills to read and understand how to navigate from one seciton to the next

3) Set a time limit - 15-30 minutes per session and then switch to playing outside or reading a book

4) Ask your child to tell you what they learned and encourage them to share their experience with you just like they would if they watched a movie or read a book.

5) Ensure you have safety software installed to protect your child (especially older children who may be more autonomous). Some free sites have banner ads and while older children may understand this, younger ones may not.

Online learning is just another tool to help your child learn new skills. It is not going to replace books or teachers or parents - ever! When I've asked kids whether they like learning on the computer or learning from books or both - the majority of them will often reply "both". So have fun exploring online educational games with your child! Who knows, maybe you'll pick up a thing or two!

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