The truth about tech

What research shows about games and apps that teach -- and how to make your child's screen time a success.

Learning Stages

By Scott Steinberg


Parenting expert Scott Steinberg is the creator of the The Modern Parent’s Guide book series and host of popular video show Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids. Scott is hailed as a top voice for today’s high-tech generation by dozens of publications from USA Today to Forbes and NPR. A proud parent and working professional, he claims he'll sleep when they start giving away a free lifetime supply of anxiety medication with each new child.

Children’s enjoyment of popular apps and games is frequently viewed as a frivolous leisure activity. But just as play is a helpful cognitive tool for kids that promotes creativity, imagination and teamwork, so too can it be a vital educational resource.

Today, more children aged two to five can run applications and video games than ride a bike or tie their shoelaces—a fact that may frighten some parents. But it bears remembering that not only do many software options actively teach math, science, social studies and other useful topics, even those that place entertainment first can be helpful educational aids when utilized correctly.

Following are several 21st century learning and career skills that today’s leading electronic amusements teach. The next time you tell your kids “Drop that device and do your homework!” consider the skills they may actually be learning.

Enhanced Learning and Retention

Studies show that a curriculum involving digital media can improve early literacy skills. Participating four and five year olds enjoyed boosts in letter recognition, letter-sound association and understanding basic concepts about stories and print. However, it should be noted that gains were achieved through the use of high-quality educational titles and that strong parental and teacher involvement were keys to success. Experts further point out that teens and tweens can also benefit from the use of high-tech solutions. As Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost explains: “Look at [popular online games and virtual worlds]: You’ve got 11-year-olds who are learning to delegate responsibility, promote teamwork and steer groups of people toward a common goal.”

Sharper Career and Job Skills

Playing apps and games requires the use of complex thinking and problem-solving techniques such as interpretive analysis, plan creation/execution and rapid innovation—all skills prized by today’s industry leaders. Small wonder brand-name firms from IBM to Cisco, Hilton Hotels and the US Department of Justice are all using simulations to improve employee training efforts, boost overall performance and impact customer service levels. Nearly 80% of employers plan on instituting software or game-based training programs by next year. That’s not surprising, as such learning programs are more inviting, engaging and capable of encouraging active participation than traditional learning tools. Innovative training tools encourage experimentation in an inviting, user-friendly context.

Improved Concentration and Multi-Tasking Ability

Research also indicates that apps and games enhance kids’ ability to multitask. Studies by educators at the University of Rochester demonstrate that kids’ attention, accuracy and ability to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously enjoy marked benefits after playing select software options. Authorities like Merrimack College psychology professor Michael Stroud explain that it’s only natural too, as interactive activities and games demand higher attention and working memory requirements. He equates skills gained playing apps and games that require constant situational awareness and strategic decision-making to those skills required when confronted with equally challenging real-world scenarios.

Better Cooperation and Teamwork

Numerous apps, software programs and video games promote cooperative aspects of gameplay and encourage working together with others to achieve common goals. Promoting greater levels of user empathy, understanding and teamwork, they also teach delayed gratification, and the need to collaborate with others with diverse skills to accomplish more rewarding tasks. These lessons can serve children well in both school and on-the-job settings and encourage them to partner with other kids who may bring differing perspectives and skill sets to the table.

Growing Confidence and Self-Esteem

Many people fear failure, rejection and embarrassment, but making mistakes, observing the consequences and trying new approaches is how we fundamentally learn. By offering safe, approachable contexts in which children are actively encouraged to try varying approaches until success is achieved, high-tech solutions do away with many of the social inhibitors common to classrooms or shared environments. Virtual simulations also provide kids with a more accurate sense of context, the ability to watch situations evolve in real-time based on their actions, and often offer multiple perspectives on the action, allowing for deeper observation and critical thinking.