LearningWorks For Kids’ mission statement is: “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 thinking skills.” It’s a sentiment we here at Pixelkin can get behind!
I interviewed Dr. Randy Kulman, child clinical psychologist, about LearningWorks. “Over the past 20 years I have been amazed at how frequently the kids I see report failures, frustration, and inattentiveness at school and in other parts of their life…but a fascination and love for video games, apps, and other technologies.”
Dr. Kulman works with kids and families around issues like ADHD, learning disabilities, autism, and social and emotional difficulties. Though he is not a gamer himself, he saw the potential that games had for invigorating kids’ learning. He began using Roller Coaster Tycoon as a form of group therapy. In 2005 he helped start LearningWorks for Kids.
“My goal became to develop tools that could help make game-based learning into real world skills. This is why our major mission on the website is not simply identifying games that practice these skills, but helping kids and parents use the games and apps in such a way that they can generalize the game-based skills into real world competencies.”
Pixelkin takes the same approach, especially with games strong in narrative. It’s not just about playing the story—it’s about discussing it and thinking about it.
So how does LearningWorks actually work? The idea is that a parent can visit the site and create child profiles for one or each of their kids. I tried it out with an imaginary child named Blue.
I filled out the forms for Blue, but I answered the questions with my own childhood in mind. The survey wasn’t invasive; it simply asked what types of activities and subjects Blue struggled with and which came more easily to him. For example, Blue—and I—have difficulty with organization, planning, and mathematics. Blue excels in reading, writing, and self-awareness. There was also an opportunity to pinpoint specific learning and mental health issues like anxiety and ADHD.
After the survey, I was able to view “Games and Apps for Blue.” I could filter these by tapping on individual focus areas. For instance, if I tapped ADHD, the results returned Evernote and BrainPOP as useful apps for Blue. (I can attest to Evernote’s usefulness in my own less-than-organized life.) Each app and game has an LQ (Learning Quotient), recommended age, and a list of skills used.
Then there were Prescriptions for Blue. (These can be accessed with a paid membership.) Prescriptions are electronic media prescriptions rather than medicinal. Parents get a set of games that Blue might play to improve his skills in an area where he’s struggling. LearningWorks recommends that kids play these games for a total of 8–10 hours over the course of two weeks for 45–60 minutes per day, and no more than 90 minutes per day. Then there are suggestions for parental involvement, such as discussing the topic before play, setting gameplay goals, and reflecting on the game afterwards.
The parental involvement suggestions were probably my favorite aspect of the entire site. As you may know, Pixelkin advocates heavily for parents getting acquainted with kids’ play. Our own Game Picker gives discussion questions and details the topics and themes covered in various games. While Pixelkin focuses on ways to make any game—educational or otherwise—a valuable growing experience, LearningWorks outlines a supplemental guide for specifically educational games.
Finally, Blue would theoretically be able to log in and watch short videos and take brief quizzes that would help prepare him for learning and help me understand what areas he might need help with. There are some games he would be able to play directly on the site, as well.
The other useful thing that LearningWorks offers is a search engine. You can search games by thinking skill (e.g. organization), academic skill (e.g. math), and learning challenge (e.g. ADHD). you can also narrow the search by recommended age and price (all, free, or paid).
I have to admit, while the search engine is potentially pretty great, I was a little disappointed in my personal results. I had to fiddle around with it a bit before I received even one recommendation. ADHD + math + focus (a trouble area for me) got me only one result—Mathmateer. I haven’t played Mathmateer, but it was listed as a game for ages 6 and up; Blue is 12, theoretically, so I have to wonder if this game would be effective for an older kid.
Searching the full list of games, it seems like the bulk of the content is geared toward ages 4 to 10, and almost all are apps rather than console or PC games. I suspect this may accurately reflect what kind of educational games are out there. It might also be a product of the database itself being in progress. (Pixelkin’s database is similarly being added to and updated constantly.)
There also isn’t much in the way of story-intense games like Papo & Yo or Journey (though I did stumble across The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time). While the former two aren’t necessarily educational games by label, they are fascinating and worthwhile in terms of critical analysis and social learning.
LearningWorks for Kids is a great tool for parents of younger kids looking for educational games that help with learning challenges. You’ll find some great suggestions for mobile apps and games that are geared toward learning a specific skill. If you’re looking for games for older children, story-based games, or games for console and PC, try Pixelkin’s Game Picker!