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10 video games to help kids think big
We found 10 video games that kids will love (and they'll secretly be learning, too).
- Educational video games endure a gimcrack reputation for being boring.
- We list 10 games that can help players learn and may improve their cognitive skills.
- The American Psychological Association recognizes other benefits to playing video games, including social and motivational ones.
Video games have shouldered a bad rap. Critics argue they indoctrinate children to violence, reinforce negative stereotypes, and produce cognitively lazy shut-ins. Ironically, educational video games enjoy an even shabbier reputation. Say what you will about DOOM and Grand Theft Auto, at least they aren't boring.
But such reputations are hardly earned. While the relationship between violent media and aggression is complicated by an accumulation of risk factors, the American Psychological Association has found insufficient evidence to link video games with delinquency and criminal violence. The association also acknowledges the many cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social benefits of digital play.
As for educational games, they've come a long way since the days of Castle of Dr. Brain and Wally Bear and the No! Gang. For starters they can be fun—and not in an "it's this or flashcards" kind of way. In fact, some of the best learning video games weren't even developed with education in mind.
The Minecraft phenomenon needs no introduction. Kids will gladly spend hours playing and exploring their blocky, lo-res sandboxes. In that interactive space, a lot of learning can happen.
Mojang's Minecraft promotes agency, investigation, creativity, collaboration, and lateral-thinking skills in its survival mode, while its creative mode offers the tools for outstanding design opportunities. Some industrious players have built entire cities and fantasy worlds.
Educational organizations have utilized Minecraft's popularity and tool set to create entirely new learning opportunities. Code.org, for example, has created computer code tutorials which feature Minecraft characters and settings. And Microsoft Studios has developed an edition of the game specifically for educational purposes.
Squad's Kerbal Space Program tasks players with overseeing their own space administration, building rocket ships, and launching them into space. Gameplay makes children feel like rocket scientists as it touches on many facets of actual space exploration—including design, mathematics, engineering, and aerospace physics.
Like Minecraft, the game also encourages experimentation and a growth mindset. Rocket launches will fail, forcing players to watch them explode spectacularly in the atmosphere. But the Kerbal's enthusiasm and cartoonish whimsey makes failure more than half the fun and success all the sweeter.
When you play a 3D video game, do you feel like a rat in a maze? There's good reason for that; you kind of are. Scientists have long known that environmental enrichment has positive effects on cognition and neural plasticity of rodents, and there are few environments more enriching and rewarding than a Super Mario level.
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers wanted to test if stimulating virtual environments provided a human correlate for rodent mazes. They had participants play Nintendo's Super Mario 3D World for two weeks alongside two control groups—one played no video games, the another played the 2D game Angry Birds.
The results? Participants who played the 3D game showed improved performance on recognition memory tasks and mnemonic discrimination, suggesting these 3D environments influenced the hippocampus, a brain structure that plays a major role in learning and memory.
Another study, this one published in PLoS One, looked directly at gray matter in adults 55 to 75 years old. The participants were divided into three groups: one group played Super Mario 64, another took self-directed piano lessons, and the third performed no task. After six months, only the gamer group showed a significant increase in the gray matter of the hippocampus (though the music group showed an increase in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and both the musicians and the gamers saw growth in the cerebellum.)
While these studies don't prove Super Mario will make you smarter, that's okay. The games still offer a bounty of problem-solving, spatial navigation, and eye-hand coordination learning tools. Any increase of gray matter is a bonus.
Ubisoft's Rabbids Coding is more straightforward in its educational goals. The game teaches players the basics of coding by requiring them to create simple algorithms. These algorithms then guide the titular Rabbids through mazes of obstacles to an end goal. No prior coding experience is required, and younger children can still enjoy the logic puzzles without comprehending concepts like program, algorithm, or outputs.
The story of guiding the Rabbids off the International Space Station before they destroy everything has a fun, maniacal Looney Tunes vibe. But be warned! The Rabbids act like Minions cross-pollinated with Jerry Lewis's facial expressions. Kids love them; parent mileage will vary.
Rabbids Coding is available for free on Ubisoft's UPlay platform.
Keyboarding is more important than ever. Most jobs require basic keyboarding skills, and as proficiency tests migrate to computers, young adults will need these skills to succeed in their education. Unfortunately, many schools aren't teaching typing under the false belief that children are either already proficient or will learn naturally through computer interaction.
Parents and schools need a fun, engaging way to introduce keyboarding proficiency. Enter Fishing Cactus' Epistory.
Epistory takes players on an adventure alongside a young girl and her fox companion as they explore this fantasy land. Through typing, players battle monsters and solve increasingly difficult puzzles that slowly migrate their fingers beyond home row. It's all wrapped up in a gorgeous origami art style with a story that "literally unfolds" as players progress.
The Portal series takes place in the Aperture Science Lab under the watchful eye of GLaDOS. This sarcastic, genocidally-oriented A.I. pushes players through a series of puzzles that require the mind-bending portal gun to overcome.
It's basically an escape room that's been built inside a Rubix Cube that players solve with the powers of a spacetime-leaping subatomic particle. The scenarios stretch logic, problem-solving, spatial-awareness, and lateral-thinking to the absolute limit. It's also darn funny, sporting a humor that's equal parts wry and absurd.
A study published in Computers & Education found that Portal 2 players showed more improvement in standard cognitive skill tests than players of Lumosity, an online program that markets itself as a "brain workout."
"If entertainment games actually do a better job than games designed for neuroplasticity, what that suggests is that we are clearly missing something important about neuroplasticity," C. Shawn Green, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Popular Science. (Green was not involved in the Computers & Education study.)
Lead your civilization. That's the challenge of this popular strategy series. Starting with a group of prehistoric humans, players must utilize economics, diplomacy, innovation, and military might to secure their civilization's place in history.
While many strategy games focus exclusively on combat, Civilization offers four routes to victory: cultural, religious, martial, and scientific. The game teaches planning, resource management, and basic economics.
The history can get a bit wonky—at least, we don't recall a time when Mahatma Gandhi forced Cleopatra to surrender by threat of nuclear destruction. But the leaders feature gameplay traits that hint at their historic influence, which may prime a self-directed study of history.
Nintendo Labo combines design thinking with learning video games to create an unconventional education experience. Using cardboard kits, players build and personalize peripheral devices as varied as a piano, fishing rod, bug bot, driving wheel, and even a child-sized robot suit. Each peripheral then pairs with a game on the Nintendo Switch.
The concept nurtures an interest in engineering, construction, and creativity. Some of the games also sport programming interactions, allowing the players to see how the physical build affects the digital space and visa versa.
With Labo, players get to understand how their toys function, not simply see what they do. Bill Nye seems to get a kick out of it, too.
The first thing you'll noticed about the Professor Layton series is its gorgeous art style. It's what you would get if Studio Ghibli adapted an Hercule Poirot novel. The aesthetics perfectly match the story, which follows the titular detective as he ekes out clues to solve the day's mystery.
Players must keep track of locations and characters in a point-and-click style adventure. The clues are presented as mind-bending puzzles that test the player's logic, mathematics, spatial orientation, and lateral thinking. These can be mind-busting for even older players, but a generous hint system means most ages are welcome.
Unlike most war games, which serve as adolescent power fantasies, 11 bit studios' This War of Mine tasks players with overseeing the survival of a group of civilians caught between the military and the separatists.
They'll need to gather resources, manage the shelter, and tend to the community's physical and mental wellbeing. The experience forces tough choices on the player, like stealing much needed food from other survivors, while providing no easy solutions.
This War of Mine provides a different type of learning video game. Like a good piece of art or literature, it asks its players to empathize with a part of the human experience that is alien to their everyday life.
For younger players, we'd recommend subbing out This War of Mine with Never Alone. A platform by Upper One Games, the game is based on a traditional tale of the Iñupiat people, a native Alaskan tribe.
By solving the game's puzzles, players are rewarded with "cultural insights," stories of the Iñupiaq people shared by their storytellers. Developed in partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribe Council, the game offers players an entertaining and personal method to engage with a rich culture.
Gaming: Truths & Myths
There are 10 excellent learning video games that entertain and teach in equal proportion. But our list is hardly comprehensive. Mario Maker, Little Big Planet, the Carmen Sandiego series, and The Legend of Zelda series are all equally deserving of a spot.
Of course, just because video games are excellent learning tools doesn't mean children (or adults) should spend hours a day playing them. They offer an engaging complement to other learning tools, like books, parks, museums, and the like. But with these and other games, parents don't have to worry about letting their children enjoy a play session now and again.
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- Exercise your brain with Bennett Foddy's free online games - Big Think ›
- Are video games bad for your kids? Experts weigh in... - Big Think ›
A new study finds that dogs fed fresh human-grade food don't need to eat—or do their business—as much.
- Most dogs eat a diet that's primarily kibble.
- When fed a fresh-food diet, however, they don't need to consume as much.
- Dogs on fresh-food diets have healthier gut biomes.
Four diets were tested<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjY0NjIxMn0._w0k-qFOC86AqmtPHJBK_i-9F5oVyVYsYtUrdvfUxWQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1b1e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87937436a81c700a8ab3b1d763354843" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: AntonioDiaz/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tested refrigerated and fresh human-grade foods against kibble, the food most dogs live on. The <a href="https://frontierpets.com.au/blogs/news/how-kibble-or-dry-dog-food-is-made" target="_blank">ingredients</a> of kibble are mashed into a dough and then extruded, forced through a die of some kind into the desired shape — think a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_extrusion" target="_blank">pasta maker</a>. The resulting pellets are sprayed with additional flavor and color.</p><p>For four weeks, researchers fed 12 beagles one of four diets:</p><ol><li>a extruded diet — Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe</li><li>a fresh refrigerated diet — Freshpet Roasted Meals Tender Chicken Recipe</li><li>a fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Beef & Russet Potato Recipe</li><li>another fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Chicken & White Rice Recipe.</li></ol><p>The two fresh diets contained minimally processed beef, chicken, broccoli, rice, carrots, and various food chunks in a canine casserole of sorts. </p><p>(One can't help but think how hard it would be to get finicky cats to test new diets. As if.)</p><p>Senior author <a href="https://ansc.illinois.edu/directory/ksswanso" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kelly S. Swanson</a> of U of I's Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, was a bit surprised at how much better dogs did on people food than even refrigerated dog chow. "Based on past research we've conducted I'm not surprised with the results when feeding human-grade compared to an extruded dry diet," he <a href="https://aces.illinois.edu/news/feed-fido-fresh-human-grade-dog-food-scoop-less-poop" target="_blank">says</a>, adding, "However, I did not expect to see how well the human-grade fresh food performed, even compared to a fresh commercial processed brand."</p>
Tracking the effect of each diet<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NjY1NTgyOX0.AdyMb8OEcjCD6iWYnXjToDmcnjfTSn-0-dfG96SIpUA/img.jpg?width=980" id="da892" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="880d952420679aeccd1eaf32b5339810" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Patryk Kosmider/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tracked the dogs' weights and analyzed the microbiota in their fecal matter.</p><p>It turned out that the dogs on kibble had to eat more to maintain their body weight. This resulted in their producing 1.5 to 2.9 times the amount of poop produced by dogs on the fresh diets.</p><p>Says Swanson, "This is consistent with a 2019 National Institute of Health study in humans that found people eating a fresh whole food diet consumed on average 500 less calories per day, and reported being more satisfied, than people eating a more processed diet."</p><p>Maybe even more interesting was the effect of fresh food on the gut biome. Though there remains much we don't yet know about microbiota, it was nonetheless the case that the microbial communities found in fresh-food poo was different.</p><p>"Because a healthy gut means a healthy mutt," says Swanson, "fecal microbial and metabolite profiles are important readouts of diet assessment. As we have shown in <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/92/9/3781/4702209#110855647" target="_blank">previous studies</a>, the fecal microbial communities of healthy dogs fed fresh diets were different than those fed kibble. These unique microbial profiles were likely due to differences in diet processing, ingredient source, and the concentration and type of dietary fibers, proteins, and fats that are known to influence what is digested by the dog and what reaches the colon for fermentation."</p>
How did kibble take over canine diets?<p>Historically, dogs ate scraps left over by humans. It has only been <a href="https://www.thefarmersdog.com/digest/the-history-of-commercial-pet-food-a-great-american-marketing-story/" target="_blank">since 1870</a>, with the arrival of the luxe Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes—made from "the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef", mmm—that commercial dog food began to take hold. Dog bone-shaped biscuits first appeared in 1907. Ken-L Ration dates from 1922. Kibble was first extruded in 1956. Pet food had become a great way to turn <a href="https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/animal-by-products/" target="_blank">human-food waste</a> into profit.</p><p>Commercial dog food became the norm for most household canines only after a massive marketing campaign led by a group of dog-food industry lobbyists called the Pet Food Institute in 1964. Over time, for most households, dog food was what dogs ate — what else? Human food? These days more than half of U.S. dogs are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/magazine/who-made-that-dog-biscuit.html" target="_blank">overweight or obese</a>, and certainly their diet is a factor.<span></span></p><p>We're not so special among animals after all. If something's healthy for us to eat—we're <em>not</em> looking at you, chocolate—maybe we should remember to share with our canine compatriots. Not from the table, though.</p>
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.