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Question: How can parents find the right games for learning?

Katie Salen: The first thing I would say, and I do tell parents this: Just figure out what it is your kid is interested in.  And also what are the kinds of things that they may be struggling with.  So, if there’s a child that is struggling with a certain way of conceiving of complex problems.  So maybe they’re struggling in math a little bit.  There’s a lot of different kinds of games that give kids practice in ordering certain kinds of problems, working through certain sequences of logic.  Maybe there’s a kid that has a passion around sports.  Okay, sports games are a great opportunity for them to get in there and play with their friends, but also gain some facility around the technology. 

And so mostly it has to do with trying to match an interest that our child might have with what a game might be offering. Not just in terms of content, but also in the type of game.  So if you have a kid that is, let’s say is really interested in, and I’ll go back to the math and engineering.  There’s a whole genre of games about building stuff.  That might be a great genre of game for that kid.  There may be a kid that’s interested—very detailed oriented kind of type A personality kid—real time strategy games are a great genre of games for those kids.  And those are games where you are managing complex sets of resources in a simulation environment and try to advance toward a particular kind of goal. 

Maybe you have a kid that’s really creative and interested in more open-ended kind of exploration.  There’s a whole genre of adventure games that might be really good for that particular kind of child.  So it just really has to do with what the situation is.

Question:
How can parents participate in their kids' games?

Katie Salen: Well, the most important thing we know from a learning perspective is talk.  So, kids that grow up in households where they don’t have an opportunity to talk with parents about what they’re doing, the kids tend to struggle in many ways because they haven’t again been given the opportunity to practice with the language, with using words, with putting together complex ideas, with creating arguments.  So the simplest and biggest thing a parent can do with a child is to sit down and play with them.  Play the game with them, talk with them about what they’re doing, prompt them, ask them questions.  Kids love it when the parent asks them to show—that the kid will show the parent how to do something. 

We have a program at the Institute of Play called Playforce where we bring in kids from third grade up to college and they play test games for us.  And they tell us what they think are valuable about the games. And what we found is with some of the younger kids that the moms started coming in with the kids and they would sit next to them and start to play, and there was a radical change in the relationship; a.) between the parent’s understanding of what their kids were learning from these games and b.) just in the relationship between the parent and their child, as the child became an expert in explaining to the mom what they were doing, what they were learning, how to play the game.  And so that’s a really powerful role that you can put your child in, is letting them be the teacher and letting them share with you what it is they find so interesting about this thing that they’re doing.  And it has consequences in terms of their potential for future learning.

Recorded May 7, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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