Young Children’s Play in the Digital Environment: a Matter of Boundaries

Play is an essential part of childhood. While many people see it as kids simply having fun, it’s been found to contribute greatly towards the child’s cognitive, physical, and social development and emotional well-being.

Yet many adults feel that at some point, play becomes a waste of time.

As kids grow, they are expected to take on greater responsibilities. They need to focus on academics, supplemented by choice extra-curricular lessons like playing the violin or getting into the soccer team. Such activities are known to contribute to a well-rounded education and, ultimately, better future outcomes.

The value judgment of a child’s playtime typically comes from an adult perspective. Kids pursue what interests them, regardless of its potential impact in the long term.

Thus, the issue of young kids playing video games can be shrouded in uncertainty.

Dealing with the intangible

Activities such as music, sports, and other forms of artistic expression or athletic training can easily correlate with a child’s development.

We can see how they gain confidence and greater motor coordination. We celebrate the tangible results, ranging from making a shot to performing in front of an audience or creating artworks that will later adorn our walls.

But what does a video game give your child?

By definition, nothing in the virtual environment is real. The items and powers a character acquires in an RPG don’t stick around when the child exits the game. Neither do their high scores in an online competition really matter outside of cyberspace.

If a developer shuts down or the app is removed, what remains? Skills don’t transfer, records of accomplishment cease to exist, and the child has wound up spending a considerable amount of time engaged with their screen.

Studies have shown that video games can be helpful to a child’s development. But that depends on the content and design of the game itself. It must build on the ways kids naturally play and learn. That’s not always the goal developers have in mind with the titles they release.

child using the computer

Replicating the natural world

From the earliest age, interacting with the physical environment through play teaches children how real-world objects work. They learn that a fall can hurt and that dropping things can damage them.

Playing catch with a ball or Frisbee gives any kid a better intuitive understanding of the laws of physics than any class they will take later on. Playing with a dog or other animal teaches them to observe behavior, pick up on cues, and empathize.

Video games may provide some benefits. A puzzle game is essentially similar to real-world puzzles, only with more bells and whistles. In fact, the virtual environment may afford even greater variety for this genre.

However, most video games remain rooted in real-world experience. Their incorporation of fantastic elements or effects works best when the user can still be anchored in the familiar.

Your on-screen avatar may be able to jump thrice their height, do flawless backflips and somersaults, and push around massive blocks all day. But you still play by the rules. Gravity still brings you down, and you can’t walk through walls.

These principles extend to the social and emotional aspects. If you want kids to learn how to interact with others, video games can be useful for that goal. But that would depend greatly on the moderation of online interactions, which is often lacking and can lead to adverse effects.

Setting boundaries

Video games only truly became mainstream with the advent of smartphones and reliable internet connections. Their effects are still being studied, which can lead to a lot of conflicting advice.

Screen time limits help. Studies have shown that kids can benefit from playing one hour per week, but not more than that. Excessive play was steadily linked with multiple negative effects. And even those benefits can be lost if the specific game isn’t creating a positive experience.

Recall that play’s function is to help children learn and develop in different aspects while having fun.

Most adults would acknowledge that the internet and devices, in general, are here to stay. Video games serve as an introduction to the digital world in which our children will grow and mature.

It’s a new responsibility for parents and caregivers to evaluate games, not just based on content rating or reviews, but how well they are designed for a child’s development.

We must be particularly vigilant when it comes to the social interactions made possible through online games. People behave differently behind the veil of cyberspace. Not everyone embraces the concept of good digital citizenship.

Set those rules and boundaries, rather than simply creating a limit on screen time. Your reward will be a positive digital experience in your child’s early years.

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