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Balancing Screen Time: How Video Games May Enhance Learning for Children with Disabilities

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

‍As a Calgary-based parent and educator, I have often wrestled with the conundrum of balancing education and entertainment for children and adults with learning disabilities. My journey in this quest led me to an interesting discovery—video games. Video games, often viewed as a form of recreation, can sometimes be a powerful tool in enhancing learning. While unsupervised or unmonitored video game play is no substitute for a tutor for learning disabilities, games do have a role in education.

The relationship between video games and learning is an emerging field of study, and the results are quite promising. Research indicates that video games can help improve various cognitive functions, helping children overcome the challenges posed by learning disabilities. However, it's not about letting children spend endless hours in front of screens. The key lies in striking a balance—limiting screen time while maximizing the benefits of gaming.

For this article, I read research by Monique Patenaude, University of Rochester; a National Institutes of Health article on Bader Chaarani's research (Department of Psychiatry, University of Vermont, Burlington), a Brooke Kleiboer article from the University of Saskatchewan, and finally, Bader Chaarani's research must have been so interesting that NPR interviewed him. You can listen to the NPR interview here.

  1. Chaarani noted that some kids spend 15 hours a day playing video games and later suggested this may result in poor mental and physical health.

  2. Chaarani’s findings included: children who play video games 3+ hours/day outperform kids who never play video games in terms of impulse control and memory. Brain activation changes in those video game players involved in memory processing, vision, and attention.

  3. Not all games are equal. There are small studies that suggest that action adventure games affect the brain differently than problem solving and logic games. For kids 9-10 years old, the majority play fast paced games like Call of Duty or racing. Very few of those kids play problem solving and logic games. Chaarani reported that children who played action games saw the best benefit.

  4. There was a negative outcome from extended screen time on both a child's mental and physical health. Also, children playing 1 to 3 hours of games a day have better outcomes than kids who spend the same amount of time using screens for other purposes like texting or passive screen time watching TV, or YouTube.

After reading and listening to Chaarani’s research, I wondered what the outcome would be if the whole family was involved in gaming simultaneously. Is family bonding improved? Does a child’s cooperation skills improve? Will all family members' brains benefit from such activity? Finally, as a person heavily involved in sports, I would like to see outcomes compared to children playing team sports and compared to children who balance team sports, video games, and formal education.

Understanding Learning Disabilities in Children

Before delving into the role of video games in enhanced learning, it's essential to understand learning disabilities in children. Learning disabilities are neurologically-based conditions that affect how children receive, process, and communicate information. They can impact a child's ability to read, write, speak, and perform mathematical calculations.

Children with learning disabilities often struggle with traditional teaching methods, and this can lead to frustration, low self-esteem, and a lack of motivation to learn. However, every child has a unique way of learning, and it's our responsibility to discover and nurture it. This blog partially promotes Calgary reading disability services at Rocky Point Academy but child learning is a community effort including many learning places and forms. This is where video games come into play. They can provide an alternative, engaging, and interactive way of learning that can cater to the individual needs of children with learning disabilities.

The Role of Video Games in Enhancing Learning and Memory

Video games have been shown to have a positive impact on learning and memory, two areas often affected in children with learning disabilities. The interactive nature of video games encourages active participation, which can lead to deeper understanding and retention of information. Furthermore, video games often involve tasks that require players to remember instructions, locations, or sequences, thereby exercising and improving their working memory.

The role of video games in enhancing learning is not limited to memory alone. They can also help improve attention span, another critical aspect of learning. Video games require players to pay sustained attention to various elements of the game, helping to improve their focus and concentration. This can translate into better attention span in other areas of learning as well.

How Video Games Improve Cognition and Problem-Solving Skills

Video games, particularly those that involve strategy and puzzles, can significantly enhance cognition and problem-solving skills. These games require players to think critically, make decisions under pressure, and devise strategies to achieve game objectives. All these cognitive skills are transferable to real-life situations and academic learning.

Moreover, video games provide immediate feedback—whether a player's action was successful or not. This feedback can help children understand the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes, thereby improving their decision-making and problem-solving skills. Video games also encourage perseverance as players often have to try multiple solutions before achieving their goal.

Executive Functioning and Video Games

What about executive functioning? Can video games be used to improve these higher-order cognitive skills? The answer is - sometimes. Executive functions refer to a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling and coordinating other cognitive abilities and behaviors. These include planning, working memory, attention, problem-solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, task switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions.

Video games, especially those that require strategy and planning, can help improve these executive functions. For example, games that require players to manage resources, make strategic decisions, or plan their moves in advance can help improve planning and strategic thinking. Similarly, games that require players to switch between tasks or adapt to changing situations can help improve mental flexibility and task switching.

The Balance: Limiting Screen Time to Avoid Video Game Addiction and Eye Strain

While video games offer numerous cognitive benefits, it's crucial to remember that excessive screen time can lead to video game addiction and eye strain. It's essential to strike a balance and set limits on gaming time. As a rule of thumb, children should not spend more than two hours a day on recreational screen time, including video games.

Video game addiction can lead to a range of problems, including academic underperformance, social isolation, and health problems. On the other hand, prolonged screen time can cause digital eye strain, characterized by dry eyes, blurred vision, and headaches. Therefore, while video games can be beneficial for enhanced learning, they should be used judiciously and under supervision.

Video games often remove the tactile nature of learning with our hands. A game controller is far from learning with modeling clay and does not address learning challenges that clay does.

The Impact of Video Games on Cognitive Performance in Children

The impact of video games on cognitive performance in children, particularly those with learning disabilities, can be quite significant. As we have seen, video games can help improve memory, attention, cognitive skills, and executive functions, all of which are crucial for academic learning and everyday life.

Moreover, video games can also help improve self-esteem and motivation to learn. As children achieve success in games, they can gain confidence in their abilities, which can translate into increased motivation and effort in academic learning. Furthermore, video games can provide a safe and supportive environment for children to experiment, make mistakes, and learn at their own pace, which can be immensely beneficial for children with learning disabilities.

Strategies to Use Video Games for Enhanced Learning for Children with Disabilities

Given the potential benefits of video games, how can we effectively use them for enhanced learning for children with disabilities? Here are a few strategies:

  • Choose games that align with the child's learning objectives. For example, if the goal is to improve memory, choose games that require remembering sequences or locations.

  • Use games as a supplement, not a substitute, for traditional learning methods. Video games should be part of a comprehensive learning plan that includes other teaching methods and activities.

  • Monitor the child's gaming time and ensure it does not exceed recommended limits. Encourage breaks during gaming to avoid eye strain and other health problems.

  • Provide support and guidance during gaming. Help the child understand the game mechanics and strategies, and discuss how they can be applied to real-life situations.

Case Studies: Successful Use of Video Games for Learning Enhancement

Several case studies illustrate the successful use of video games for learning enhancement. For example, a study conducted by the University of California found that playing video games can improve cognitive functions in children with dyslexia. Similarly, a study by the University of Padua in Italy found that playing action video games can improve reading skills in children with dyslexia.

Meanwhile, a study published in the journal "Computers & Education" found that using video games in a classroom setting can improve mathematical skills in children with learning disabilities. These studies highlight the potential of video games as a tool for enhanced learning in children with learning disabilities.

Video games can be a powerful tool for enhanced learning, particularly for children with learning disabilities. They can help improve memory, attention, cognition, problem-solving, and executive functioning. However, it's crucial to remember that video games are not a magic bullet. Video games can support learning but they do not get to the root of why there is a learning disability. People with learning disabilities should contact a learning specialist to help them address of the cause of their struggle. Video games should be used judiciously, as part of a comprehensive learning plan, and under supervision to avoid potential problems such as video game addiction, eye strain, improper online behaviour, and social isolation.

As we navigate the digital age, video games, if used properly, offer an exciting and innovative way to cater to the individual learning needs of children with learning disabilities.

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