5 Reasons I Let My Children Play Video Games But Limit Their Television

In our family, it’s no secret that we love video games. We are not screen averse. While we do set aside our electronic gadgets when we’re at the dinner table and in the evenings to spend time together, we do not consider that all screens are created equal.

We distinguish between television and video games, limiting one and not the other.

We firmly believe that the two forms of media could not be more different.

Video games are interactive, television is passive

I dislike television. My children know this. I honestly don’t think it’s enjoyable. Unless I am eating or drinking while watching television, the quality of what I’m watching has to be incredible for me to remain interested. Otherwise, I get bored.

It’s not just me who thinks so. Watching television by its very nature is a passive activity as can be seen in this pattern of brain waves.

Even if what you are watching is a documentary, television seriously limits thinking. It encourages you – no, requires you to passively accept the world of the show to be able to enjoy it. Also, because television is so visual and so realistic it is easy to accept it as a reality. After all, you saw it happen.

As such, we limit television watching. When the kids do watch movies, especially Disney movies (yes, I hate most of them) we make it a point to talk through the themes they beat kids over the head with um, explore.

While this blind acceptance of the creator’s worldview can happen in video games, there are more options to choose from. Clearly, I’m not suggesting you buy Grand Theft Auto for your kids. We certainly do not.

Minecraft, Castle Crashers, Alien Hominid, Terraria all have their own worlds that you can go explore. None of them are realistic in the way television is and the children don’t for one second believe that this world is somehow real. Not even the youngest one.

That is because there is constant thinking involved in playing video games. Both require a willing suspension of disbelief, but television requires an extended period of not thinking.

Video games encourage creativity

Video games can’t possibly be creative, right? What’s creative about a controller and some blips and blops on the screen? Where’s the art form in that? Isn’t creativity something you do with paint and music? Where’s the color, for goodness’ sake? Nah, video games can’t be creative.

Well, actually, they can.

5 Reasons I Let My Children Play Video Games But Limit Their Television

Creativity, in its broadest sense, is the ability to look at problems from different perspectives and try to solve it in a way that gets the desired results. If you only accept the definition of creativity that involves paint and color, you are saying that Picasso was creative, but not Einstein.

Watch kids playing Minecraft or interacting with a new app on the pad. Think of how many different ways they try to make sense of the game and what to do next. Will this work? No. Why not? Maybe this will work. Let’s try that.

What is this if not creativity at its fullest? The mind is stretched beyond its ability in what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow” in his book of the same name, which I quoted yesterday. This causes thinking to expand and push the limits of what it’s capable of.

There are valuable skills that can be picked up from video games

Those who sneer at video games and see only violence and problems are probably reading bad propaganda. There is no link between video games and increased violence. Yes, this is regardless of what the APA says.

(One of the reasons I have been hesitant to quote research studies in this article is because it is almost impossible to find studies that don’t begin and end with bias regarding this matter.)

I find that my children have an increased understanding of how the world works through playing video games. The first time my children played Minecraft, I was amazed at the level of cooperation that emerged out of that one game alone.

While they fought over toys in the living room, suddenly when the game came on, they banded together, reading from the Minecraft Secrets book and working together to build and houses and worlds and defeat zombies.

It was breathtaking.

Unlike television where the people and situations are realistic but locked in a highly artificial world, video games feature artificial characters in a relatively open world facing semi-realistic situations.

5 Reasons I Let My Children Play Video Games But Limit Their Television

The player then has to figure out how to manipulate his environment to be able to get where he wants to go. He needs to figure out if he has to cooperate with other players, attack them or go learn some more skills, solve puzzling situations to be able to advance. This requires picking up skills that can transfer to real life situations.

It is a world in which the children have control

When I watch my recently turned four year old love TerrariaI understand why. It’s because in this world, he is not limited by his size. As the youngest in the family, he is left to ask permission and help in almost everything he does. He can barely pour milk into a bowl for cereal from a gallon jug. If clothes are turned inside out, he has trouble wearing them. We are constantly telling him that his shoes are on the wrong feet.

Real life, for him is relatively difficult and full of challenges. He needs assistance in getting through much of his day.

The only place this is not true is when he is playing his favorite game. Then he is in control of his environment.

He can lift things and move them around; he is happy; he can play with his friends and his siblings. For a little while, he is not the youngest, not the weakest in the bunch. He is a team player and one of them. He belongs.

Even as adults, we are satisfied when we have more control over our environment. (In fact, research says that adults playing video games had reduced stress levels and even reduced pain.) Our stress levels go down. We feel better. We can then tackle more difficult tasks.

Why would we want to keep this same enjoyment, the same feeling of accomplishment from out children?

Television on the other hand does not reduce stress. In fact, people do it as a purely passive activity and even report high levels of depression while watching television. Watching television also contracts time, according to Claudia Hammond in Time Warped, leaving you with nothing to show at the end of the day.

Video games teach kids that failure isn’t forever or devastating

Megan McArdle in The Up Side of Down mentions how failure is a good thing to learn early in life. If we have been shown that failure is not something to fear, if we can recover from failure, we are that much more likely to be successful.

5 Reasons I Let My Children Play Video Games But Limit Their Television

If we keep pushing it into the future, failure can have the power to devastate us. That is why punishment is necessary while children are growing up to train them.

I find this to be incredibly empowering when the children play video games. They have unlimited lives. Doing the wrong thing hurts, but does not destroy them. There’s always another chance.

My daughter, who used to behave like she was physically hurt by making mistakes, picks herself up, shakes off the dust and moves on. No blame, no shame. She’s not trying to find someone to complain to. It’s almost as if she’s – gasp! – taking responsibility and moving on to try it one more time.

Television does not offer this kind of recovery from failure, no matter how many times children’s movies tell them to follow their dreams.

So no, you can not lump all screen time together and call it digital heroin. There are differences and those differences are huge.

Now excuse me while I go storm a castle.

Like this post? Sign up to get others like it delivered straight to your inbox!

* indicates required


Email Format


Like this post? Share it with your friends!

Top Five Apps for Kids (Teach by NOT Teaching)

We love our electronics in this house. I have mentioned that before. We play video games, we have Kindle Fire and family movie nights. Given a choice between television and video games or apps, I will always choose the latter.

More than anything else that appeals to me about tablets is their ability to teach when we’re not doing sit-down learning.


We believe very strongly in our family about the importance of memorization and having a handy reference of facts in our heads. I write about this often. (Hence the term the classical unschooler!) What I don’t fuss over though is how those facts get there.

Most of the time the children learn these facts while playing on their tablet, thanks to these apps. Most of these are my absolute favorites.

Stack the States

My all time favorite app! Everyone in the family enjoys this one. And my kids can play it for hours. They learn about different landmarks in every state, which state borders which state and also where each of the fifty states are on a map of United States.

Price: $2.99

Stack the States II

A step up from Stack the States and a little bit harder. Here the “stack” for winning has to be much taller. Well, guess what? They can do it. When a challenge is presented as a game, my kids have no problem with it. My four year old who can’t read yet can put all 50 states in the right places. Go figure.

Price: $2.99

Stack the Countries

This is just like the above, except here you learn a little bit about all the countries of the world and you learn where they go in their rightful continent. Occasionally, I will get a question from my children that I have to admit I know nothing about. Eeep. It’s time for me to play on the Fire when they’re in bed.

Price: $2.99

Presidents Vs. Aliens

This one is fun! If you’ve seen my crazy children memorize the President’s song from the Classical Conversations CD, you can tell that they’re really into historical trivia. In Presidents Vs. Aliens, they search through their knowledge and add to it by identifying if the game is talking about a president or an alien. It is made by the creator of Stack the States and Stack the Countries.

Price: $1.99

Tower Math

Now, this is very clearly an educational game. But that does not mean it’s not fun! It’s just that you’re not going to be able to be sneaky about it and buy it for your kids. We have this as part of our curriculum, so it’s not an issue. We love reading about sieges and medieval warfare anyway, so this fits right in. You have to solve math problems to save the numbers.

Price: $1.99

I am a huge, huge fan of all these apps as you can probably tell. You can find them all here.

Like this post? Share it with your friends!