[Interview] Randy Kulman, PhD, Founder of LearningWorks for Kids

Posted by | January 05, 2015 | Feature | 4 Comments
learning works for kids play diet graphic croppedPlay Diet by Learning Works for Kids

Dr. Randy Kulman is a scientist who understands the educational value of video games and other technology. He founded a company called LearningWorks for Kids, “an online platform for informing and instructing parents on how to enrich and enhance their kids’ digital play time.” Dr. Kulman thinks that video games can help kids learn—especially those kids who are alternative learners. In between running a company, doing research, writing books (“Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions” and “Playing Smarter in a Digital World”), consulting, and participating in our advisory panel, Dr. Kulman found time to answer our questions about video games and learning.

We see that your company, LearningWorks for Kids, “was founded on the principle that popular video games and other digital media, when used mindfully and responsibly, can be powerful tools for sharpening and improving children’s academic performance and cognitive… skills.” Can you explain the research or clinical basis for your belief that video games can really help kids in those important ways?

There is a robust pool of research that now supports the power of video games to improve learning. Studies suggest how video games can improve spatial cognition, executive control  skills, and cognitive flexibility. For example, recent studies described how playing 20 hours of StarCraft is more powerful for improving reading fluency skills than an hour of reading training weekly over the course of a year. It has become increasingly accepted that video games can be used as a great tool for learning. In fact, the “American Psychologist,” the leading journal for psychologists in America, published an article by Isabella Granic; Adam Lobel; and Rutger C. M. E. Engels entitled “Benefits of Playing Video Games” in January of 2014.

starcraft play

Playing the online strategy game StarCraft can improve reading skills.

We love to play video games, and we all feel they’ve helped us stay sharper. But sometimes it’s difficult to see how skills learned and practiced in video games transfer to real life. How do you evaluate the transfer of game skills to life skills?

The question of transfer of game-based learning to real-world learning is at the core of our approach at Learning Works for Kids. While there is certainly strong data that describes how learning takes place in video games, effective transfer that helps across a number of real-world situations is still somewhat limited. First, let me state that I believe we are in the infancy of developing games and technologies that will improve real-world learning. Secondly, most game publishers have not embedded strategies that promote real-world learning from video game play. Our approach at Learning Works for Kids is to build in generalization opportunities around the games and apps that we review. In a simple fashion, we refer to this process as “detect, reflect, and connect.” We want to help the child to identify (Detect) the skills they are using in the game, use metacognitive principles to help (Reflect) them think and consider how these skills are helpful in the real world, and then practice (Connect) what connects these skills with  activities we suggest. This process to promote generalization is borrowed directly from strategic teaching strategies that are used with children who have social, emotional, and learning difficulties in the classroom.

Is it fair to say that a core part of your program is basically training parents to help them learn how to play with their kids and figure out what games their kids can (and even should) be playing? Why do you think parents need this kind of training?

It is absolutely a core part of our program to train parents, and in the future teachers, childcare workers, and extended-day counselors, how to use games to promote executive functioning and academic skills. We want to help parents choose, and more importantly, use the games to help their children improve skills. Unfortunately, many parents see their children as being more competent in their video game and technology use than themselves. As a result parents often shy away from playing these games with their kids. I recently wrote an article that used an excerpt from my book, “Playing Smarter in a Digital World,” that addresses this issue.

Dr. Kuhlman's book has tons of good advice for parents.

Dr. Kulman’s book has tons of good advice for parents.

Why did you decide to start Learning Works for Kids? (Can you give us a little history?)

The idea for LearningWorks for Kids dates back to the 1990s. In my role as a child clinical psychologist, I was flabbergasted by how frequently parents would be describing their children, who had significant attention and learning problems, as highly competent and engaged in their video game play and also their understanding of technology. These same parents who would tell me that their kids could not spend more than five minutes sitting to do their homework described how they could spend hours playing video games and were fully engaged and attentive when using other forms of technology. I began to think about how we could better leverage children’s use of technology into something that was more meaningful and powerful to their learning. Initially, we started off by running therapy groups in which we used a variety of problem-solving techniques using an old game called RollerCoaster Tycoon. Eventually we built our first website in 2005 and recently relaunched our completely free website LearningWorks for Kids in 2014. In the meantime, I began to realize children were using a variety of cognitive self-management skills when playing a game or using an app. The focus of our website is now to help parents identify their child’s executive functioning needs and then prescribe a group of games and technologies that can help to improve them.

A new version of RollerCoaster Tycoon, an amusement-park simulation game, is coming out in 2015.

A new version of RollerCoaster Tycoon, an amusement-park simulation game, is coming out in 2015.

Your database of learning games is really cool. How many games are in the database and how do you decide which games to endorse or include?

Currently we have more than 700 apps and games in our database. We choose them very carefully, whether they either practice or support a specific executive functioning, thinking, or academic skill. We also look very carefully for games that are fun and engaging in addition to the learning component. We give each game an LQ, or learning quotient, that combines a fun score and a brain score. Only games that have an LQ of 7 or above are selected for the site.

What are some of the ways you’ve observed video games helping “different learners”—kids with learning disabilities, for instance, or kids on the autism spectrum?

Games are incredibly powerful tools for kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism-spectrum disorders. Many of these children struggle in traditional learning settings, but are willing to persist and, in fact, succeed when using digital media and technology. We have presented our research  at conferences all over the country. Certainly the level of attention and sustained effort with technology is often dramatically better for children with special needs than it is with regular education materials. There are, however, some cautions that need to be taken with these children, which we discuss regularly on our website. One of the areas that I’ve become particularly interested in is how to set effective screen time limits for children.

We love your concept  of the “Play Diet” as a metaphor for regulating what is a hot topic these days—screen time.  Can you explain a bit about it and how you came up with it?

I also love the concept of the “Play Diet.” It is one of the more interesting terms that I have come up with over the course of developing LearningWorks for Kids. It has replaced my old favorite of “engamement,” which I coined to describe the intense immersement and engagement in video games that can lead to learning. The concept of  a “Play Diet” is quite simple. In today’s world, digital play using video games, apps, and other technology, is a legitimate and important part of a healthy play diet. In a nutritional diet, a combination of different types of food are necessary for balance and health. In the same fashion, a healthy play diet in today’s world includes some level of digital play. There is also a very clear need for social, physical, unstructured and creative play to be part of a healthy play diet. Healthy play diets vary based upon a child’s age, their particular sets of interests, and the sensibilities of a family. However, I strongly disagree with families that prohibit the use of any digital media or technology in their home; I believe that this takes away from the child’s opportunity to develop the digital literacy skills that will be needed for the 21st century, as well as the commonality of play so that they can connect readily with their peers who may perhaps be overly immersed in digital media use.

Learning Works for Kids Play D

The PlayPlate from Learning Works for Kids is a fun way to plan a balanced play diet for kids.

What challenges have you encountered in setting up your platform? Can you give us an example of a successful application of your platform for a particular family?

There have been many challenges in developing our LearningWorks for Kids platform. Currently, many use the platform simply as an educational tool for parents. We will shortly have an entire portion of the site devoted directly to kids themselves that will allow them to play games on the site and to engage in a variety of other learning opportunities. The site, in some ways, can only be as successful as the parent’s level of engagement. Creating this level of engagement and sustained effort on the part of parents has been somewhat difficult to achieve. When parents do engage we have had recieved great feedback from them. Particular success is noted when we are able to identify a child’s needs, target a selection of games and apps to address those needs, and the parents then follow through using our game guides and play books so that they play the games with the kids and engage in real world activities to practice the skills outside of the games.

Randy Kulman

Dr. Randy Kulman

Linda Breneman

About Linda Breneman

Linda learned to play video games as a way to connect with her teenaged kids, and then she learned to love video games for their own sake. At Pixelkin she wrangles the business & management side of things, writes posts as often as she can, reaches out on the social media, and does the occasional panel or talk. She lives in Seattle, where she writes, studies, plays video games, spends time with her family, consumes vast quantities of science fiction, and looks after her small cockapoo. She loves to hear from people out there. You can read more about her at her website, Linda Breneman.com or her family foundation's website, ludusproject.org.