A Preschooler Primer for Parents

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!

Comments

or get stinking drunk. Sure, sometimes we parents need to have distractions for the kid while we get work done

My question is. What is your job? And where do I sign up?

Entrepreneur. That's what's so appealing about the job.

Pretend > Technology

Pretend > Technology

I'm always skeptical about truisms, particularly those disguised as math problems. First off, pretend and technology can go hand in hand, and secondly pretend is not always the best option for play. I play soccer with my son, and that's not pretend. I help him color with crayons, and that's not pretend or athletic. Like all things, and this goes back to my point, it's the time we spend together that's the thing of value, and there's a lot of fun to be had in playing appropriate video games with my son as well.

I'm showing this to my brother who has a 2 year and a 2 week year old toddler. Nice writeup.

I would suggest lego star wars as a good choice for many kids. Death in the game is simply legos falling apart so its not tramatic and its fun for adults too.

I do agree with the kids websites such as Nick, Cartoon network, Seasame Street, etc. My son learned how to use a mouse by playing some Elmo and Zoe games.

When my 3 year old plays lego star wars he's perfectly happy running luke skywalker (tatooine) off a cliff and laughing at the little Wilhelm Screams he makes. I have to train myself into never playing it with him when I want to achieve a goal, e.g. to get to True Jedi status or collect all the minikit pieces. He just wants to play.

Just an observation, but I think the first game Lego Star Wars is actually more kid friendly. The newer one about the "Original Trilogy" had more difficult jumping / level puzzles. I guess the developers realized that older folks were just as caught up in the charm of the game and took it up a notch.

And like Dudleysmith said, it's just fun to see what gives my sons a laugh and join in, whether it's something as simple as falling off a ledge or plunking a silly hat on chewbacca.

Elysium wrote:
Pretend > Technology

I'm always skeptical about truisms, particularly those disguised as math problems.

See I interpreted that as 'Technology eats Pretend'. Y'know like Pac Man. Aw crap, I guess that's why I failed math...:(

I'll second the Gametap suggestion. Who knew that my kids would use it more than I?

It is all about balance.

This is not a pun on all the Star Wars Jedi stuff floating around in this forum.

There are actually a ton of little things on the computer from interactive books and even old, more simple arcade games that kids just love to play -- and it is all about play and exploration. I understand the fear that you don't want video games to be a panacea for your child's active nature, but I don't think that it will be -- he's not 12 years old yet.

Great artice, Ely.

Elysium wrote:
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.

My 4-year-old daughter probably spends the most time with PBS Kids and Playhouse Disney which both offer a ton of thoughtful, well-designed content for kids. Also, she likes Peggle.

BlackSheep wrote:
It is all about balance.

This is not a pun on all the Star Wars Jedi stuff floating around in this forum.

There are actually a ton of little things on the computer from interactive books and even old, more simple arcade games that kids just love to play -- and it is all about play and exploration. I understand the fear that you don't want video games to be a panacea for your child's active nature, but I don't think that it will be -- he's not 12 years old yet. :D

The Force is strong in this one.

Great article and good comments here. I have a 7 year old boy and a 5 year old girl. My son is very active and a sports fiend. As a result his gaming focus is generally on sports games. I quickly learned the best way to share the hobby with him was to get interested in his sports games and participate in them rather than trying to get him interested in playing stuff I'd like more. One exception was Lego SW which he loved and became a great "us" game. I had one of my most memorable "family" gaming experiences last weekend when my son and I played Mario Kart on the DS head-to-head. He's gotten very good at the game and understands alot of the subtle strategies. It was fun to see him take the winning and losing in equal measures of stride.

My 5 year old isn't comfortable with the console controllers but loves web games and is very comfortable with keyboard & mouse interaction. One obvious choice here is Webkinz. My kids love it and we keep the computer in a very central location in the house so we can engage in their play time a bit (my wife often helps my daughter earn KinzCash faster). Another suggestion I found from my daughter's experience at Preschool is the site http://www.starfall.com/. It's mostly flash games with a strong edutainment focus. And I can't agree enough with the GameTap recommendation. Both my kids have found tons of stuff they enjoy there. Makes the subscription a no-brainer for us.

Podunk wrote:
Also, she likes Peggle.

My 4 year old son is the same in that regard.

Lately though, he's been quite obsessed with Spiderman, so 'Spiderman: Friend or Foe' has been the perfect game for us to play together. Of course, he likes seeing daddy play and beat up the evil robots, but after a while, he'll hold his little hands out and say 'David's turn!' He then proceeds to send Spiderman to his multiple deaths, laughing all the way. So, similar to DudleySmith's child, children can take pleasure from games in a completely different way then us grown ups, and there's nothing wrong with that at all!

He also really liked watching me play 'Portal', so that was a definite bonus.

I love the astronomical reference.

I second gametap.

Nice write up. Not that it has anything to do with your write up, but it was weird in some ways that I happen to be reading Ender's Game for the first time since it was published and it shows the other side of the spectrum about 'gaming' with children to say the least.

I've always felt that gaming gives 'us' the edge if the 's--- hit's the fan' and we have to think, or use equipment for survival for those we love, that in normal circumstances we wouldn't attempt to use.

If The Last Starfighter taught me anything, it's that videogamers will save the world when the aliens attack!

Elysium wrote:
Pretend > Technology

I'm always skeptical about truisms, particularly those disguised as math problems.

That's because math is closed-minded and wrong. Always.

But then, you already knew that.

or get stinking drunk. Sure, sometimes we parents need to have distractions for the kid while we get work done

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.

Ely Jr: Daddy, this game is scary!
Ol' Drunken Ely: Nut the Hell up! Daddy needs those damned achievements!

Donan wrote:
I've always felt that gaming gives 'us' the edge if the 's--- hit's the fan' and we have to think, or use equipment for survival for those we love, that in normal circumstances we wouldn't attempt to use.

"Throw pie at Yeti?"

"Nothing in my inventory works, or can be combined with something else. Dangit, I'm going to have to backtrack!"

My 4-year old nephew is obsessed with legos (he'll spend hours looking at lego catalogs, which is exactly what i did when i was his age), and he just saw Star Wars for the first time. Needless to say, I completely blew his mind when i brought over the PS2 and Lego StarWars 2. Its such a trip to see pure, unadulterated wonderment and the joy of discovery. He has this issue with not wanting to go to the bathroom for fear of missing something, so by the end of the second chapter, he was literally squirming out of his seat. So I finally made him go to the bathroom (he unfortunately didnt make it in time).

The controller is a bit too big for his hands, and he hasn't quite got the hang of the directional controller, but he's picking up fast for his first time on a video game console. Maybe i should invest in the smaller controller. He's not too goal oriented so we'll just hang out and shoot each other or push around the droids. I eventually nudge him along the path.

I think though, I might have opened Pandora's box, because he'll probably bother his parents incessantly about playing Lego Starwars. I'm the bad, enabling uncle.

"Throw pie at Yeti?"

Mmmmm ... pie.

And the Age of (fill in the blanks) have been a staple in our household for awhile. Gots to get my little conquerors all trained up.

Nice article ...

wordsmythe wrote:
Donan wrote:
I've always felt that gaming gives 'us' the edge if the 's--- hit's the fan' and we have to think, or use equipment for survival for those we love, that in normal circumstances we wouldn't attempt to use.

"Throw pie at Yeti?"

"Nothing in my inventory works, or can be combined with something else. Dangit, I'm going to have to backtrack!"

I've just realized how many gamers will be wishing for a walk-through if something doesn't go as expected.

Elysium wrote:
If The Last Starfighter taught me anything, it's that videogamers will save the world when the aliens attack!

Perfect example!

I've already got this planned out. Atari 2600 at 4, NES at 5, SNES at 6 and the Commodore 64 at 8. Only 3 years to go until the Atari....

I got a bunch of working C64s and 1541s downstairs if you need one when the time comes.

Nice article. I need to look into this entrepeneur racket.

Increasingly, I find the few hours I spend playing video games with my daughters as or more enjoyable than the ones I spend with my peers. As Elysium said, it becomes something you can do together, including on a cold/rainy day.

I think it's important to have non-gaming activities as well, but it's fun to have as part of the mix.

I know a guy who's an entrepreneur down on 63rd. He seems to do pretty well for himself, if the fancy duds are any indication.

Oh, I have all the systems. I pull them out every year or so (2 years for the C64 since it's in the attic) to make sure they'r still working.

My son will know his roots.

I know the title says "for parents," but I went ahead and read it anyway. Deal with it.

Got a 13 year old here. He finished Res Evil 4, but "didn't want to play late at night.". There is a threshold there. But then again I had him sitting on my lap in '99 playing Quake and it definatley made him jump at times, but he was in my lap. Anyway, I have always instiled in him with horror movies or games (GTA comes to mind), that it's not real. Actors, game graphics etc . . . it's all not real. And he is cool with it. On a side note he also finished Bioshock on the 360 and loved it, but truth be told, he would rather be playing Smash Bros on the Gamecube with me any day. Kids will be kids . . .

I forgot- a GREAT game for kids- at least mine loved it around 5: Lemmings. Good for puzzle solving skills.