“But They Only Want to Play Games!”

It’s the perennial question – are they really learning? This can be particularly acute when your kids seem to spend all day playing computer games (or horror – watching other people on YouTube play games).

This is our reality at the moment. Of course, I have been knocked around with a lovely infection, so there has been a tad less guidance than usual ( and thank goodness for antibiotics!)

But despite this, there are a number of things that we have done to actually aide, encourage and help our kids learn the things we think they need to learn while immersed in their ‘everything is a game‘ world.

But They Only Want to Play Games, yellowreadis.com | Picture: Minecraft character in black and red on wooden platform looking directly at camera

Make it Communal

One of the best things we have done is to simply play games with the kids.

Minecraft is actually one of the best games for cooperative play! And it has fostered the kind of communication that the kids need to practice, through activities like:  creating LAN worlds for local Minecraft games; getting the kids to ‘help mummy’ on create new structures; and having the kids create mini-games for our family. They have to learn negotiating skills (when they disagree on what to do), communication skills, and patience with teaching each other new things.


Minecraft walls in square shape on island


But we don’t just do Minecraft – the kids love cycling through online games (with chat disabled!), like agar.io and assorted other .io games, and games like Cats (a robot battling game). The kids will sit for hours playing with each other (and my husband): discussing strategy; disagreeing; problem solving; and setting up silly stuff for other family members. My husband is honestly the master of finding these kind of games. But my son is a quick study and is also finding great games too!

Watching gaming videos with my kids and asking questions – what’s happening here? What are they doing? How do you play this game? It’s not just about watching games. It’s about being able to distil knowledge from these videos and then use it to help others learn too.

For kids with motor problems like my son, being able to analyse things verbally is a great way to practice important English language skills.  Once his motor skills can keep up with his mind, he can transfer these skills over to writing.

Creating Their Own Content

One of the fun things we have done is to help the kids to create their own YouTube channels.

From merely passively (or not so passively) consuming, they are flexing their learning skills to become content creators.

The kids have had to work through the following questions: What games do they want to video? What will they say? What’s cool about this game? What do they want to demonstrate? How are they going to set things up to make the filming process smooth?

Both kids are beginning to understand the process of planning, breaking things down into smaller steps and the importance of preparation. These skills are easier to learn (and stick for longer) if there is a real passion behind the skill building. For my two with their executive functioning issues, this isn’t just a nice added extra, but necessary scaffolding.

Minecraft chickens in a wooden pen with Minecraft grass background

Working on ‘Soft’ Skills

One of the truly great things about gaming is the way it helps my kids build ‘soft’ skills. Due to their challenges, these are not instinctive, they won’t ‘just learn’ them, and throwing them in the deep end to ‘figure it out’ with other kids usually ends in tears. My kids need serious scaffolding, and this includes: lessons on ‘how to greet people’; therapy on tying shoes; how to move their body; use their voice; and interpret others.

None of this comes easily.

Watching other kids and young adults play games actually helps them learn how to talk, without the stress of interacting with people who don’t have convenient ‘pause’ buttons!

Ecolalia turns into internalised scripting that they can use appropriately. Watching people play and observing the full emotional range that game play induces, is great way to practice reading people. It’s actually been much more effective than the many (usually good) social skill therapies we have tried over the years.

Minecraft avatar with parrots in the desert

We Play Games  – It Works

I still have moments of worry, moments of deep scepticism. Moments when I am sure I am ruining my kids. Articles insisting that computer game playing is destroying kids’ natural ability to interact and ‘unplugging’ is the only solution don’t help. Of course, these articles usually assume that unplugged kids will be able to naturally pick up skills once they are with other kids. (Uh, no. We’ve tried thatmeltdowns due to over-stimulation does not aide smooth interpersonal relationship building. Trust me.)

Decoupling learning and practising social cues and ‘soft’ skills from using them to build friendships at the same time is wonderful. And when my confidence wanes, I remind myself that when researchers and experts say ‘all’, they usually mean ‘most’. Being the extreme outliers that they are, my kids have never really fit into those ‘most’ boxes. So, as long as it works, this is what we will keep on doing. And damn the torpedoes, as it were!


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