Kids and Video Games

What, can't drag Johnny away from that book he's reading? Can't get Suzy inside the house on a beautiful spring day? Like most parents, you want your little kids to be playing video games, and you get worried when they seem disinterested, or they find the games too frustrating or confusing.

Well, I've got some tips for you:

First, ease them in with some educational games. If you have a Windows machine (even an older 200-300 Mhz machine will do nicely), I recommend the Reader Rabbit series, which has been great - right from the preschool version up to grade two. Kids seem to be able to figure out the mouse fairly easily - one of our kids had it down before she turned two, while the others all had it by the time they turned three. Plenty of different minigames and tasks are tied together with some sort of story that gives the kids something to work towards. It also works well for a group of kids - one kid uses the mouse, but the others are happy to give advice, and enjoy the story and music.

Now, time to get them playing some (almost) real video games. I used to hate that purple dinosaur, but when I discovered a Sega Genesis game about Barney for just a couple bucks at the thrift shop, I had to get it, and see if it was good for the kids. And sure enough, it's like the Rosetta Stone of gaming for little ones. It's a typical side-scrolling platform game, sort of like Super Mario Brothers or Sonic, but with a couple important changes. First of all - Barney can't die. This might sound like a major disadvantage (Barney dying all sorts of horrible deaths could have been a really strong selling point for the adult crowd) but from the kid's perspective, this is great. Little kids have enough trouble coping with the controls, never mind avoiding enemies and jumping over wide chasms. Secondly, if you don't touch the controls for a while, Barney just starts walking by himself, and will finish the level on his own. So kids can just sort of sit there with the controller, feeling they're doing something even when they aren't. And as they start to clue in that pressing left or right on the pad makes Barney walk, or pressing the button makes him jump or hug (yes, hugging is a big part of this game), they slowly become video game players.

Once Barney has caused the great awakening, kids are ready for all sorts of other games. The next one I recommend is Bowling for the Atari 2600. This'll get them going on a joystick, which surprisingly is a lot trickier for a kid to figure out than a gamepad or especially the mouse. All you have to do in bowling is press the fire button, and the ball (more like a square) will roll (okay, slide) down the lane and hit the pins (more squares). It's all accompanied by simple, yet distinct and attractive sound effects. After a while they'll figure out that pushing up and down on the joystick moves the man up and down, and so forth.

Once they've got these skills down, they'll be ready for some newer systems. Mario World 64 on the Nintendo 64 is great, as there are large areas with no threats, where Mario can wander around as they get used to the controls. There's plenty of exploring to be done in the castle when they feel comfortable.

Once the N64 control pad is mastered, no problem moving to some Vigilante 8 on the Dreamcast, Crash Bandicoot on the Playstation, or Mario Kart: Double Dash or Mario Sunshine on the Gamecube.

Pretty soon all your concerns about books and outdoor play will be over.

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