Like most young children, my daughter is fascinated with animals. Cute and cuddly, smooth and slimy, dark and creepy—you name it. She loves them all. We spend hours looking at birds and bugs in the yard, or inspecting the spiders that ambitiously weave their webs on the outside corners of our windows. We’re members of the Woodland Park Zoo, and we definitely get our money’s worth out of that investment. But when we can’t make it into the city to see the real animals, or it’s just too rainy or cold to spend much time outside, we often enter the virtual world of Zoo Tycoon and have a different kind of fun.

Since she’s only 2 years old, my daughter can’t really control the game herself, but that doesn’t mean she can’t play it with me in a meaningful way. I may be the one pushing the buttons and navigating the menus, but she’s the one in control of the zoo. She tells me which animals she wants, and we talk about which type of habitat they should live in, what they need to eat, and other objects they might want, like activity centers or toys that will help keep them happy. Every once in a while I need to convince her that it might be a good idea to take a break from animals and hire some zookeepers to take care of them, but for the most part, she runs the show, all the way down to whether we feed the baby elephant a banana or an orange.

I’ll be honest. There are times when I’ve questioned whether I’m doing the right thing by letting her “play” a game at such a young age. My gut tells me we’re having a great time interacting together, and that’s what really matters, but like most parents of young children I scrutinize every tiny decision I make. After all, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time for anyone under the age of 2, saying that “young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” But are all types of screen time created equal and does the fact that I’m playing with her make a difference?

“The AAP has started to acknowledge a possible difference between passive video viewing and interactive play on touchscreens and video games, as far as learning goes,” said Georgene Troseth, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, who studies symbolic understanding in young children. “One of the AAP concerns was that too much screen time would take the place of interaction with other people, which is needed for children’s language to develop. So the idea of parent-child interaction around a screen might make sense.”

Troseth mentioned a study in which parents paused videos to ask their children questions and have discussions about what was being watched. The results led to significant increases in learning vocabulary and story comprehension. “Very young children usually cannot read picture books by themselves, so parents ‘scaffold’ their learning from books by talking about the story,” Troseth said. “The same kind of scaffolding—especially asking questions to get children to think actively—turns out to help children learn from video.”

Dr. Ari Brown, a spokesperson for the AAP and author of Baby 411, said, “We know, based on research, that shared engagement or ‘co-viewing’ will help a child learn or take away something more valuable from the screen experience because a parent will be more inclined to talk about what is being watched or played with the child—and just that talk time is valuable, but so is the potential discussion about the topic as well.”

But Troseth mentioned it’s important for the co-viewing or scaffolding to be done in a meaningful way. “Talking about ideas from the video (or video game, or e-book) is different from regulating the child’s behavior while using the screen, though,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect the same kind of learning if parents were spending most of the time telling the child not to pound on the controls or not to touch the screen, for instance.”

Even if parents don’t always have the time to sit and play games with their kids, that doesn’t mean the games cease to be beneficial. “Nonviolent video games, in moderation, when played with another child is pretty normal and can promote pro-social behavior,” said Dr. Brown, though she advises against lots of hours playing games alone in a basement.

“One help will be in selecting the games in the first place, looking for open-ended games that promote creativity (for instance, Minecraft allows children to make choices and invent thigs). Also noticing if a game is frustrating (perhaps because the controls are difficult, or because the game only allows certain choices).  My friends with young children have mentioned that their children have been frustrated when they wanted to do something creative and the only choices the game allowed were conventional (e.g., you could only choose between two hats to put on the character’s head and were not allowed to put the hats on the character’s feet),” said Troseth. “But I think it would be an unreasonable burden for parents to think they were expected to ONLY let their children play the games when the parents could play with them.”

After speaking with these experts, I feel a lot better about letting my daughter participate in a play session of virtual zoo management. Turns out, it’s really not much different than sitting down to read a book about animals, except with books you don’t get to interact with the animals the way we can in Zoo Tycoon. I’m able to start teaching her the differences between carnivores and herbivores, and talk about how some of the animals are endangered and what that means. She might not be old enough to fully grasp these concepts, but I’m laying the foundation for the future. By far, her favorite thing to do is feed the animals, and the delight on her face when she sees a hungry baby antelope stand up on his hind legs to eat a piece of fruit from our zookeeper’s hand is priceless. It also helps to confirm for my toddler-parent insecure mind that I’m not ruining her for life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’ve got some new giraffes to feed.

This article was written by

Nicole has been playing games her entire life. Now that she's a mom, she's passionate about promoting games as a healthy pastime to other parents around the globe. She has been an editor at IGN, where she launched and hosted the Girlfight podcast. In her spare time (which is not very much, honestly) she enjoys gaming, reading, and writing fiction. Most of the time she’s a mom to a crazy, intelligent, and exhausting little girl.