My son turned four this past week, and like most kids of his tender age, his capacity for activity might encourage seasoned physicists to question the laws of thermodynamics. If we are to believe that the universe demands the conservation of energy, then I have to assume that the toddlers of the world are winking out massive suns all throughout the galaxy, perhaps through spooky action over distance, because the simple consumption of food and sunlight through terrestrial means does not adequately explain the dynamic nature of my own son's energy. His capacity for running, often in place and equally often for hours, would have to be otherwise considered supernatural, and I remain confident that children are the eventual solution to our dependence on fossil fuels.
So, as a parent I welcome activities of a slower physical nature from time to time, and particularly those that approach some kind of similarity to things I might do were I not responsible for a hyper-animate preschooler. I realize the question of introducing computers and video games to children of his age is a sensitive one, but like most things I suspect that with smart supervision a little game-time every now and again is not a bad thing.
I realize now that I never properly appreciated the quiet joy of free-time when I didn't have kids. Like youth itself, the irresponsible freedom of not being "˜daddy' can only be fully comprehended from the far side of that particular fence looking back on verdant pastures of greener grass. But, to dwell on the soft shackles that bind me to a life it turns out I like a lot, would be to miss out on the rewards that come with mature responsibility, so when I wax nostalgic on long days spent lost in virtual worlds without the occasional prodding from tiny hands, I also try to remember how much fun gaming with my son can be.
So, I offer a few suggestions I've picked up over the years on marrying your part-time identity as gamer with your full-time identity as mommy or daddy. Not meant as some mandate for how to parent your kids – I'm bad enough at doing that for one kid, I'd never want the responsibility of your too! – these are only a few strategies that have proved occasionally useful to me, and from which you may be able to find some use of your own.
KISS – So painfully obvious that I nearly kept it off the list, this is not a suggestion to introduce KISS Psycho Circus (link) at an early age, but a reminder of the classic acronym Keep It Simple, Stupid, which has perhaps never applied more. You're not going to teach your four year-old to appreciate the finer points of Civilization IV, and nor should you bang your head against that particular wall, so don't overburden yourself with the idea that gaming with a young person has to involve plot points, solvable puzzles or even rules. My son can in fact entertain himself for vast swaths of time, simply drawing in Windows basic Paint program or typing his name in Word, and simply making those tools available can be more rewarding than loading up a complicated game.
Kids do not need the latest technology – My 4 year-old has his very own computer. It is an eight year old Pentium 2 Dell laptop, and is worth about thirty bucks in real world dollars. Having his own computer is a point of pride, and he regularly chooses it above far more current and technically superior gadgetry. Looking in the right places, it's not particularly difficult to track down an old computer and some kids software that will run on it for fifty dollars or less, and then instead of restraining yourself from the urge to resort to corporal punishment if your kid sneezes all over your flat-panel widescreen one more damn time, she can just have her own pc to defile and more importantly explore as she sees fit. Hitting up Ebay, Craigslist and even local small-business computer resellers, it's easy to get your child set up with a computer that exceeds their expectations without worrying about damaging your own sensitive equipment like your keyboard or your sanity.
The same rule applies to consoles, if that's your preference, and the often simpler controls of (much) older consoles are ideal.
Inexpensive and free games – Following up on the idea of keeping costs down by using out of date technology, there are endless ways to create a safe and fun gaming environment for your child without breaking the bank. Not only does children's software tend to cost far less, but Gametap is a motherlode for great games of all ages including the excellent Jumpstart and Reader Rabbit series of edutainment titles. But, even that takes the unnecessary leap into the pocketbook, and if you can stomach the idea of exposing your child to the occasional sidebar advertisement, the web provides the ultimate collection of free children's gaming, including Nick Jr., Fisher Price and Noggin with endless collections of games, stories and activities for ages from infant to about six.
Kids are more interested in playing with you than a thing – I probably should have this one higher up, because it's really quite important. While I am offering suggestions for how to keep a toddler or preschooler entertained, it really isn't a substitution for your participation. For my son, he has a limitless desire to share every little thing with me no matter how insignificant it is nor the Herculean efforts I need go through to seem like I'm interested. The whole point here probably shouldn't be to _always_ drop your kid in front of Beautiful Katamari so you can balance the checkbook, play World of Warcraft or get stinking drunk. Sure, sometimes we parents need to have distractions for the kid while we get work done, but establishing a precedent for gaming to be a babysitter is a path fraught with peril.
Look, I'm just saying don't be that parent that dumps their kid at the local EB for three hours while you go shopping at Eddie Bauer or Lane Bryant.
Be unselfish – I'm trying to think of a gentle way to put this, but don't sell me the line that kids are fine with violent shooters just because it's what _you_ want to play. Every kid has different thresholds for what is appropriate for them, and it's important to be sensitive not to what you think your kid should like, but what they actually do like. As the parent, I leave it to you to make the decision where you draw the content line, but at least be aware of the difference between your expectations and the reality of for what your child may be prepared. There are too many good games out there that will be a good fit for your kid, to force something intimidating or frightening down their throat. To take it a step further, for example, if you have a child that doesn't respond at all to playing computer games, then don't try and force the point just because it's what you like to do. You're the parent, which means what you like is, for the most part, irrelevant.
Make game-time a treat – Again, I'm trying to be gentle here (despite not being gentle at all before), and as gamers we can happily invest handfuls of hours at a time on our hobby. That's not necessarily the best idea for a toddler, and making time spent playing appropriate video games a treat rather than the standard is an idea at least worth considering. My son, for example, is what I would call an active child in the same way that I would call the surface of the sun a warm place, and if he doesn't meet his daily quota of approximately five miles of running around then we have problems. Playing video games for hours doesn't make a lot of sense for him, and while it's a nice way to spend a half-hour or so, it's not a substitute for traditional play.
Explore; be creative – Ending on a big one, here. While games are great, and the structured websites often a terrific way to play, the best thing is sometimes coming up with creative ways to have fun. Google Images, for example, is a great educational tool (Safe-Search is a must!) and a fun way to look up things your child is interested in seeing. Be creative when playing games with your kid, and willing to see past the rules of whatever game you might be playing to find fun.
I hope this comes off less like a brochure and more like a collection of suggestions that have done me occasional good and might do the same for you. No one knows parenting your kid better than you do, even the guys with abbreviations near their name and a smug certainty that the whole world would be a better place if they were raising all the kids, so take what works and throw the rest out with the leftovers from the fridge. If you have a suggestion for game ideas with your toddlers and preschoolers, please share!