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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.
- Do most educational games suck? - Big Think ›
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- Exercise your brain with Bennett Foddy's free online games - Big Think ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
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Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.
- The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
- Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
- It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Comparison of fracture cases by diet group
Credit: Tong et al.<p>The results showed that vegans were especially vulnerable to hip fractures, suffering 2.3 times more cases than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and pescatarians were also more likely to suffer hip fractures, though to a lesser extent.</p><p>One explanation may be that non-meat eaters consume less calcium and protein. Calcium helps the body build strong bones, particularly before age 30, after which the body begins to lose bone mineral density (though consuming enough calcium through diet or supplement can <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/" target="_blank">help offset losses</a>). Lower bone mineral density means higher risk of fracture.</p><p>Protein seems to help the body absorb calcium, <a href="https://www.bonejoint.net/blog/did-you-know-that-certain-foods-block-calcium-absorption/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20nutritionists%20have%20warned%20that,may%20increase%20intestinal%20calcium%20absorption." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">when consumed in normal levels</a>. The recent study, along with past research, shows that people who don't eat meat tend to have lower levels of both protein and calcium. When the researchers accounted for non-meat eaters who supplemented their diets with calcium and protein, fracture risk decreased, but still remained significant.</p>
Credit: Pixabay<p>Another explanation is body mass index (BMI). Non-meat eaters tend to have a lower BMI, which is associated with higher fracture risk, particularly hip fractures. In the new study, vegans with a low BMI were especially likely to suffer hip fractures. That might be because having more body mass provides a cushioning effect when people fall.</p><p>Still, the study has some limitations. For one, White European women were overrepresented in the sample. The researchers also didn't collect precise data on the type of calcium or protein supplementation, diet quality or causes of fractures.</p><p>Another complicating factor: Producers of vegan products, such as plant-based milk, are increasingly fortifying foods with nutrients like calcium and protein, so modern vegans are potentially at lower risk of deficiency.</p><p>The researchers wrote that their findings "suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research."</p>