Have you seen the videos of toddlers swiping on books as if they were iPads? Let's face it, kids today are growing up with screens. Your preschooler probably already knows about video game characters like Sonic and Pokémon from popular kids' tv shows. So, what do you do when your 5-year-old asks about playing video games, and where do you even start? We’re here to help, with some useful tips to promote good screen-time habits together with some age-appropriate games to play with your kid.
Set limits from the start
As with all screen time, it’s important to set time limits. We started off with thirty minutes for our kids. Keep your kids mindful by having them help you set an alarm. On a phone or tablet, just use the device itself. For console gaming, we use the oven timer. And be sure to check the total screen time occasionally (found under settings) — it’s easy to agree to a few more minutes here and there and lose track of the actual minutes they’ve logged.
Chances are your kids already know what they want to play. But even if you think you know what’s what, it’s worth spending a few minutes checking out that content yourself. To do this, search for the game's name plus “gameplay” on YouTube to see exactly what your kids will be doing. I still do this for my teenager when he asks for new titles. Thankfully, Common Sense Media also covers video games; it’s a great resource to give you a head’s up on any objectionable content.
Devices to use
There are, of course, thousands of games for phones and tablets. For console gaming, family-friendly Nintendo devices are great. If the Switch’s $300 price tag seems daunting, just start with an old-school Wii, which you can pick up on eBay for about $100, and get your 5-year-old going on Wii Sports and Mario Kart. Upgrading to the Switch will allow your kids to access current content like Rocket League and even Fortnite as they get older.
One important thing to consider for some phone/tablet games: Many of these devices encourage players to watch ads to earn in-game currency or to purchase items for random bonus content. This “loot box” phenomenon can create an effect similar to gambling addiction. The research we’re just starting to see is scary — so we suggest keeping a very close eye on any games that utilize purchasable in-game upgrades. Make sure that purchases are password-protected on all your devices, or you may be in for a nasty surprise.
Games to try
I have to start with a shout-out to Minecraft. The game’s added story adventures and plenty of add-ons in recent years build on its virtual Lego roots. As always, kids can play with friends online and in person with split-screen mode.
Gigantosaurus is based on the Disney Channel show of the same name. In it, your little gamer will race around a prehistoric world doing small puzzles and platforming challenges. It’s pretty standard fare, but your child will probably love it even if they don’t know the show.
In Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, the protagonist Alba helps people protect a local nature reserve. It’s got a great positive message about working for social change, without sacrificing fun.
If you’re looking for something simpler, try Pix the Cat. This game is reminiscent of that Snake game you might remember from your old flip phone. Pix the Cat will have your child zipping through mazes in a series of simple logic puzzles. It’s a less frenetic Pac-Man with some nice problem-solving challenges built in.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t one we got into at our house, but this game is incredibly popular. It’s a social sim and it's very open-ended, so whether your kid just wants to tend their garden or chat with all the neighbors or explore the virtual world, the game provides tons to do.
Lastly, I already mentioned Mario Kart, but I feel obliged to point out how great it is. My kids started playing it 10 years ago, and our teenager will still jump in sometimes. It’s replayable fun that almost justifies the cost of the Switch by itself. The best part about it? We can all play it together on a four-person split-screen, turning video game time into family time.
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