Can Video Games Help Early Learners Grow?

Early Learning

Can Video Games Help Early Learners Grow?

A titan in children’s entertainment just released a video game for toddlers on Nintendo Switch. What will that mean for the gaming industry — and for children?

By Eleanore Catolico     Nov 2, 2022

Can Video Games Help Early Learners Grow?

A few days ago, young children were welcomed to explore a virtual world full of blue skies and sunshine right alongside a doe-eyed blond baby boy, who has become one of the most popular characters in children’s programming. They were invited to have a “playdate with JJ.”

During these adventures with JJ, the star of the toddler show CoComelon, toddlers can sing songs about vegetables, frolic in a treehouse or build a sticker collection.

On Oct. 28, children’s media company Moonbug Entertainment partnered with Outright Games to launch CoComelon: Play with JJ on Nintendo Switch. The game is aimed at children ages 2 to 4 and their parents and is based on the characters and concepts many families are familiar with from the streaming series of the same name, known for setting nursery rhymes to short animated scenes. Moonbug also owns “Blippi,” “Little Baby Bum” and other popular kids programs.

The game is one of a few available on a major console that is aimed at children ages 5 and under, and it promises “hours of learning fun,” according to Nintendo’s website. Since the Switch is a handheld device with a touch screen, it offers a combination of console-based and mobile game functions, which may make video gameplay easier for young children. In one example, JJ can move around a brightly-colored house toward different glowing objects, such as colorful cards on a table. Once close to an object, an “A” will flash, signaling to the player to push the corresponding button on the device. After pressing the button, a mini-game about identifying simple shapes begins.

The catalog of games for early learners played on a console system like Xbox, PlayStation or Nintendo Switch is smaller compared to what’s available for older kids and teens. Much of the console game market, until recently, didn’t cater to children under 5, in part because at the younger end of this age range, many children don’t have the motor skills needed to maneuver a controller with features like joysticks and multiple buttons. Early childhood development and gaming industry experts say very young kids will likely get frustrated in the process and have very little energy left over to learn content from the game.

“They're not going to be able to even use the controller with great effect,” says Heather Kirkorian, an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the impact of screen media on infants and young children. “And so the kind of mental demands of figuring out how to use the device itself is probably going to use up any cognitive resources they have.”

When young children enter a virtual world of play, they’re most likely using apps on phones or tablets, according to a recent Common Sense Media analysis. That status quo may shift if CoComelon: Play with JJ is successful.

“I think the industry has really focused on older kids, teens and adults for console games,” Kirkorian says. “But I think Nintendo Switch is the one exception there because of that touch interface. … Having that touch interface could lead to a bigger market.”

Child development experts tell EdSurge that video games can help early learners practice foundational skills and can promote social bonding, as long as they’re designed with the child in mind and incorporate the expertise of early childhood professionals. But some also raise concern around issues of quality control and games which may advertise unproven claims about helping early learners reach developmental milestones.

Video Game Design With the Child in Mind

The definition of the term “video game” has evolved over time and even now, it varies across sectors. In the gaming industry, the term usually refers to a game played on a console or other device that connects to a TV, a handheld player, a computer or mobile device, and most game developers would say a video game involves rules and mechanisms to achieve goals. Meanwhile, a child development expert talks about video games more broadly and is typically referring to mobile games and app experiences—some marketed as entertainment, others touted as educational.

“We tend to think about gaming in a much broader way and all the ways it permeates kids’ lives on different platforms,” says Abby Jenkins, senior director of PBS KIDS content, adding that the primary gaming device for children ages 3 to 8 years old is a tablet, so most of their game time is spent on game apps.

Due to these varying definitions, the size of the current market of video games for early learners is tough to gauge. At first glance, the market appears to have striking volume, but many video game search engines yield unfiltered results including console games, mobile games, apps and more. The number of console games is a fraction of that, and console games for learning represents an even smaller slice of the pie.

On top of that, the existing market, gaming experts say, is rife with bad design. Nathan Holbert, an associate professor of Communication, Media and Learning Technology Design at Teachers College, Columbia University says the market is saturated with “poorly designed, thoughtless, apping experiences,” and it may prove difficult to find games teaching academic skills. Holbert, who is also part of a research group that develops and studies games, adds that it might be difficult to find high-quality games for learning. “But there's a fair amount of games that are in a space that I would try to think more of as games for exploration and games for creativity,” he says.

While CoComelon: Play with JJ isn’t the first console game for early learners, the touch screen interface may signal a new era of gameplay for the younger set.

“So we're not just playing with touch. We can play with motion. We've got controllers. We have the opportunity to move—in developmental psychology terms—from solitary play to at least parallel play, where five people can play next to each other, to ideally cooperative play, which is part of the maturation cycle we'd like to see in that group,” says Lindsay Grace, the Knight Chair in Interactive Media and an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Communication.

Grace, who has been designing and implementing games across a variety of educational entertainment contexts for over a decade and specializes in social impact game design, says he notices a trend toward helping kids “matriculate into these developmental phases as part of gameplay,” adding that it’s “no longer just coloring something … but actually working with developmental psychologists and [thinking] about how they're addressing specific characteristics of being a child and growing through childhood.”

The early years in a child’s life are a time of discovery. Cognitive, motor, language and social skills, among others, are beginning to develop as children learn about their world, learn how to communicate and start to make friends.

Games “that are designed with the child in mind, the child at the center, can help early learners,” says Nancy Jennings, a professor and director of the Children’s Education and Entertainment Research Lab at the University of Cincinnati. “Those that use feedback for children, provide hints when children get stuck on a task and offer the opportunity to ‘level up’ as their skills develop are the best for children,” adds Jennings, who studies the impact of children’s media on children, families and teachers.

Jennings says these virtual game experiences can also support young kids with developing perspective taking, which helps children develop empathy and build strong, healthy relationships.

But it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions about whether games geared toward early learners will likely result in the development of key skills, such as emotional regulation, notes Kirkorian. The cognitive development expert says most of the research that does exist on early learners and gaming is focused on their experiences with apps on phones or tablets. One big takeaway though, is that the fun factor is crucial to yield any positive learning outcome.

“The game is most likely to be educationally valuable if the educational content is woven into the game itself,” Kirkorian explains. “If you need to use a particular skill or piece of knowledge to move forward in the game, like if you're trying to teach shapes, and if kids have to find a certain shape in order to continue in the game, then they're more likely to practice those skills or learn that knowledge than if it's just kind of incidental.”

False Claims, No Oversight

There are multiple factors, such as content ratings and reviews, that parents, educators and caregivers of early learners must consider when children engage in virtual play, says Jennings. But ensuring quality control is still a “perplexing challenge,” she says, because “every child and situation [is] different. Some children may be more susceptible to [certain] content than others.”

That’s part of a troublesome trend that may require more adult vigilance. Jennings has encountered games aimed at children as young as 18 months old making claims that the child will learn how to read or speak a different language. She sees that as a big problem: “What I'm concerned about is the vast amount of games that are out there … kind of making promises that they’re not really delivering.”

Existing regulations focus mostly on content appropriateness, she adds, which may lay the groundwork for some gaming companies to continue to promote false advertisements about their products. “There’s no oversight. So it’s definitely a challenge,” she says.

Established in 1994, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, commonly known as ESRB, is a nonprofit, self-regulatory body that has a well-established age-based rating system for the video game industry. The rating system includes markers for content appropriateness on games. The recognizable “E” stands for Everyone, meaning a game’s “content is generally suitable for all ages, but it may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.”

Big gaming developers often have their game reviewed by the ESRB when they release on a console like Nintendo Switch or Xbox, even if there’s an online option for gameplay on a computer, Grace says. “So you get a national organization reviewing the content to figure out exactly what is appropriate, what isn't,” he adds. But mobile gaming is a different scenario, adds Grace, who has been a mobile app developer for years. “When you relaunch on mobile, it really does depend on self-report.”

Grace also acknowledges that it is a challenge to monitor the effectiveness of gameplay for early learners, but also points out there’s multiple factors that shape that experience.

“Some of the ambiguity and understanding the efficacy of these have to do with whether or not that caregiver is also engaging in it,” he says.

Erring on the side of caution when reviewing games is the best bet for parents and caregivers as they navigate this world. “I would never trust anyone [who] says that they've got the one solution for a systemic challenge in society that has persisted for hundreds of years,” he says. “So I think it's healthy for any parent or anyone to actually think skeptically of what the impact is, but we're generally optimistic about having an effective impact.”

It’s All About Quality Screen Time

Beyond the dearth of oversight measures, adult concerns over too much screen time still linger. The most recent guidelines for families provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend avoiding the use of digital media for children younger than 18 to 24 months old, with the exception of video chats, and suggest that families that want to introduce digital media to children ages 18 to 24 months limit it to “high quality programming” with an adult caregiver. The AAP recommendation for children ages 2 to 5 is to limit screen time to about an hour per day. When parents and caregivers help guide their younger children through digital media experiences, they have a better chance of learning from the content, the AAP notes.

Experts say evaluating the appropriate level of screen time with gaming, which involves more dynamic engagement versus watching videos, requires a more nuanced perspective. It’s about evaluating the quality of the experience and setting healthy limits, which Jennings says can be challenging for parents and caregivers.

“It's a fine line that parents need to negotiate in terms of setting limits, and maybe setting places where they can play or where they could use a device,” Jennings says.

When thinking about the interactivity of virtual games across platforms, Kirkorian sees this type of engagement as a double-edged sword. Some games have the ability to increase learning. If a game rewards a child for getting a right answer by ringing a bell or blowing a whistle, a child might find that positive reinforcement motivating. On the other hand, if a child stays on a device too long to play a game, the experience could be harmful. Interactivity isn’t necessarily better or worse than watching a video, she notes, so setting limits for interactive virtual play isn’t different from other screen media consumption.

“Having similar boundaries around screen time—whether it's video or video games—makes sense to me. That's different from things that are socially interactive, like video chatting with a grandparent,” she adds.

Holbert thinks the discourse on screen time is often “dramatically oversimplified.” He says there needs to be a stronger focus on the diverse range of experiences kids can have with their screens, and how they can explore a wide range of topics and practices when using screens, as opposed to the amount of time spent.

“Screens are everywhere in our lives now. So it's not just the TV screen. It's not just the video game screen, right? It's just screens all over the place, including sometimes remote learning screens,” he says. “So the question isn't, ‘What's the right amount of time on the screen?’ It's ‘What are we doing on screens?’”

And as the ecosystem of video games for early learners continues to expand, so should the way we think about games, Holbert argues. An “educational” experience doesn’t have to be boring, and a “fun” experience doesn’t have to lack value.

As for whether interacting with JJ as nursery rhymes play on a loop counts as educational or fun, or both … stay tuned.

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