Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games

Video games do not promote obesity, ill health, social isolation, or violence. They do promote friendships, cooperation, self-control, and brainpower. Read More

I have long been a fan of

I have long been a fan of video games and how they can contribute to cognitive development. After all, I myself come from an adolescence spent predominantly navigating the worlds of Final Fantasy and other similar Role Playing Games.

While reading this article, I recalled a study discussed in a class I took on Aging, which showed that video games can be an effective form of cognitive training for those suffering from mild forms of cognitive impairment. The issue was, however, that learning a specific skill in a specific context did not necessarily mean that the skill would generalized to other contexts. I think this same point is applicable to online video-gaming: it could be that social skills developed in these online worlds (e.g., making new friends and applying for jobs) would not transfer to real-world situations. In which case, I would feel justified in encouraging (note: not forcing) a kid to attend socials and resume-clinics over spending hours at home in front of a computer. Thoughts?

unschooling life, writing, deepening

My 10 year old son frequently fills out applications for online accounts without assistance. He also knows how to make purchases online, fill out questionnaires, register product warrantees, and enjoys online quizzes. He is experimenting with his signature, although he does not write in cursive, because he wants to sign a birthday check to reimburse money he borrowed from us to purchase "the most technologically advanced video game in the world!" - Spyro Skylanders.

He worked odd jobs for his grandparents (once,8 hours of work,after 3 hours of sleep, to earn $4), and saved his allowance for five months,all in order to reach his goal of purchasing a Nintendo 3DS on his tenth birthday. Today, when his sister got her 3DS, he immediately set about helping her set it up with Netflix and the apps she wanted.

Given the freedom to choose what they like, they go for a lot of the current kids favorites - and they watch a lot of game shows, court shows, jewelry and home renovation and cooking shows, LOTS of PBS Kids and PBS shows, the Weather Channel, NASA Channel, vintage cartoons, nature and other documentaries.....

One of my son's favorite lines of late is, "Mom, I was doing a little research, and - ---- " followed by some detailed information I usually didn't know.

At Christmas, he sent me Internet links to the items he wanted for his gifts, after researching them and finding them at good prices. He definitely saved me a great deal of money and frustration, and we both knew he would love his presents.

He is learning some Japanese, to understand the culture in his anime and Pokemon games, and to more effectively trade Pokemon with some Japanese-speaking co-players. He is learning to create animations, and has made three simple Javascript games, just because he wanted to.

He has never attended school, and, since he was 7, we have been an unschooling family. His love for and freedom to use screens in any manner he chooses have led to many, many skills he can carry forward into adulthood, already.

Screens and technology are his element. When we limited them, he was less happy and less engaged and confident in himself than he is today.

When a child and his passion are united, amazing things can happen!

Reply to comment | Psychology Today

i don't undestand have ATI so on( this type of good equipment to my PC) and radeon HD 5700 and i have? to enjoy it on reduced and and i have solely 20-30 fps in excellent cases.

My nephew spent a lot of time

My nephew spent a lot of time on the computer playing games as he was growing up. A lot of time was spent on the not very childish My niece on the other hand, spent her time playing on which is mostly learning games. Now that they are in their teens, both are fine. My nephew still spends a lot of time gaming and now wants to be a game designer. Both the kids are well adjusted to life around, except for one thing. My nephew wants an electronic device after about 3-4 hours of going without one whereas my niece is perfectly happy not having one for many days. Sometimes I wonder if what they played made a difference.

Anecdotal Evidence

I grew up well acquainted with video games and screen time limits. I did not until recently become explicitly aware of the roots of my interest. I have realized personally, in addition to other's comments to me on the matter, that playing video games is more than just a manner of putting myself in charge of myself but also serves as a refuge from the control of others. An observation of me growing up with limited screen time would likely include mention of an apparent frustration associated with any day I chose to play video games and a relative calm when I did not. While observing such frustration I would also display an elevated level of irritability associated with social interactions, mainly with family. More recently, while visiting home for the holidays and away from my usual game systems, the same observation would be made in reverse. My family finds me irritable and often frustrated by the absence of my normal pass-times.

As I have grown beyond parental ability to limit my access to video games, this negative mood is more readily associated with a choice not to play the available games. Thus I would conjecture, in agreement with the article, that mood is more dependent on the presence or absence of choice than the presence or absence of certain stimuli. As I continue my studies, I will keep these thoughts in mind for future research.

See motivation theory

Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory of motivation posits three classes of intrinsic motivators: Socialization, Mastery, and (relevant to this post) Autonomy.

If you are not fond of academic papers a recent book by Ryan and ??? GLUED TO GAMES links their motivation theory to our fascination with games and gaming.


It seems to me the question is not whether to limit video games or not en masse, but to take seriously the needs of individuals in context. While it is true that the data show an overall lack of negative effects, that does not preclude the possibility that some people might develop addictive behavior patterns that are unhealthy. They are probably a minority, but their experiences of suffering due to video games is a valid concern. Such individuals may need active intervention on the part of caring people in their lives to get out of those patterns of behavior.

The key is to ensure that parents are an active and involved part of the caring community that surrounds kids. Parents are often in the best position to observe patterns of effects in their children's lives. If they observe patterns of dysfunction then it is in everyone's interest that they take active measures to intervene to correct the dysfunction. And to encourage the functional patterns. In any case, ideally they would act in a manner that would preserve the autonomy and expectations of competence of their children.


Don Berg

Help Me Graduate: Alternative Education Psychology Research Funding Campaign

Free E-Book: The Attitude Problem in Education

compulsive behaviours are ok

Hi Don,
I agree that children (or adults) may develop a dysfunctional obsession with computer games, as they might with any other activity (for me it's comfort eating or Tetris!). To encourage them to stop the self-soothing activity, though, is treating the symptom not the cause. Self-soothing or compulsive activities are there to help the powerless child cope with something that is causing discomfort but they have no control over. It's not fair to take away or shame them over their comfort activity (as happens all too often) unless you can identify and help them remove the source of their distress. Parents will often be unable to do this as the child will probably not be able to identify the cause of their distress, which is likely to be intrinsic to the way the family operates, and not easily visible. Life is difficult and all parents are imperfect to some degree, but that's ok because we are designed to have coping mechanisms which will see us through if we are allowed to use them.

Community of Caring People Should Intervene

Karen Bray,

My recommendation was for a caring community of people to intervene when dysfunctional behavior is observed in children. I maintain that this is exactly what needs to be done and I trust those who become concerned about some behavior they observe to take the necessary time and expend the necessary energy to assess the situation to decide what intervention is necessary. I made no assumption about what that would entail, I simply pointed out that caring for children requires action to be taken. You are correct that the causes should be investigated and whatever course of action is taken should address the causes and not just the symptoms.

I also emphasized the community of caring people should INCLUDE the parents. That necessarily implies that the parents are parts of a larger set of people involved.

So I stand by exactly what I wrote and take your point that the process should be directed to altering the causes of the behavior, not merely symptoms.

Don Berg

Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education


My son spends a lot of time playing various games, but more recently he's been spending some of his time researching on the internet for how to play the games and finding out the weak points of the bad guys in the games in advance of having to deal with them. While some might consider that to be cheating, I look at it as developing a useful real-life skill of planning and preparation for how to approach a problem. Now I just have to hope that he'll transfer that skill to other areas as he gets older.

Our sons....

...would probably get along very well! =)

My son too!

My son too!

MMOs May Be Educational

I will start by saying that I have played WoW and other MMOs for a total of 6 years.

Many skills that someone may develop in an MMO could potentially be carried over to real life. I will use competitive Player vs Player here as an example because I believe it is the pinnacle of skill in gaming. In order to perform best in PvP, and thus get the highest ratings which come with various benefits, you need to gain a vast amount of knowledge. You need to know every class (that is a player's combat specialization, warrior, mage, etc) inside out. Once you know everything about your allies and the enemy, such as what behaviors they are likely to engage in, you can formulate strategies to assist/defeat them. These strategies grow in complexity the more players you throw into the equation. In order to perform at the highest level you NEED to be a creative problem solver who can think of new, more efficient, ways to combat certain situations. If you think about it, isn't this exactly what is most important, innovation to get the edge in life? Whether you are thinking up a new way of applying your skills in a game or thinking up a more efficient way of arranging the components of a computer chip. In order to do either properly you need a massive amount of background knowledge, MMOs teach players that by gaining that knowledge and then applying it to it's fullest potential they can be the best.

Disclaimer: Most players of MMOs refuse to acknowledge that they are doing anything wrong and instead insist that the only reason they aren't winning is because of factors they cannot control. But hey maybe eventually they will wake up, I know I was in their boat once upon a time.

Source: Years of personal experience.

MMORPGs - hiding from life?

I have four young children, two of which are old enough (6 and 7) to play video games. The 6 year old enjoys them much more than the 7 year old, and will play them for 1-2 hours at a time. I do not limit his time (except for when I want the tv!) and he does seem to get bored eventually, but we have also talked explicitly about the value of doing lots of different activities, and he understands that, too. My concern is that we have addiction in our family and having seen the effects, I am concerned that gaming could develop into an addiction. I hear more and more about this, and I have adult friends who suffer from the effects of gaming addiction in their families. I used to play a lot of video games myself as a child, but MMORPGs didn't exist then. I, and almost every adult I know, stopped being interested in video games during high school, but now I see adults being addicted to MMORPGs in their 30s and 40s. Is it not possible that the rewards and real-life substitute of MMORPGs is so much greater than Mario Bros or Pac-Man that they do represent a threat to normal social development? I fear that these new games, because of their world structure and social base, can almost replace real-life interaction in a way that depresses a person's ability to develop life relationships and interests. A quick trip to makes me think that young adult men do indeed suffer social isolation because of their gaming, and that they are applying their intelligence to solving game problems that have no net effect on their real/physical lives, nor does it help anyone else. They are pure pleasure, which is not good if seeking it replaces all other real-life activities which may be uncomfortable at first but more rewarding in the end, like dating, volunteering, exercise, etc. It also allows them to live in a world of peers who will not challenge them by virtue of being different or having different needs - hardly conducive for social cohesion or development outside the homogeneous group of MMORPG players. What I'm saying is, because the MMORPGs provide almost every aspect of real life (social interaction, challenge, variety) they are indeed more dangerous than books or poetry, because they allow young men to think they are living life when really, they are hiding from it.


Hi Lillian,
Thank you for this thoughtful comment. The issues you raise deserve a longer, more careful response than I can provide here. I'm planning soon to write a followup post on video game addiction. -Peter

Conflicted on this subject as well

Lillian, I share the same fears as you! I found this website by searching "in defense of video games" because I too am struggling with whether or not to limit my kids' video game time. My 6 year old would play on the computer or XBox all day if I did not intervene. Once a month we allow him to have a "video game sleep-over" with his brothers, and sometimes he creeps into my room at 6am to tell me "goodnight".

I just started homeschooling, so I struggle with the fear that if I lift restrictions, he will never look at his math work again (which he actually seems to enjoy doing when I tell him it's time, but he never chooses to do it on his own).

As if I wasn't concerned enough over my 6yr old being lost to Skylander, my 4yr old and 3 yr old used to LOVE playing with Legos, Play-doh, and other toys. Now they want to play with their older brother whenever they see him in front of a screen.

All this to say, I divorced my first husband when I realized he put more time and energy into his Sim City family than into our own. He created a world where he had the exact same job, the exact same wife, and the exact same hobbies, and he would enter that world after work and never come out to spend time with me. Maybe it was an addiction, or perhaps we just did not "upgrade" fast enough for his pleasure.

So while a huge part of me wants to give into the ideas I have read today (I also read the articles on Evolutionary Mismatch, and cheating in school and Science) and unleash my children to discover their potentials however they feel led, a huge part of me fears that we will all sit down in front of our own screen every morning and let the days slip away while my poor husband trudges to and from work supporting our habits.

While I don't deny that I learn an awful lot while online, I am not exactly producing anything or contributing to society in those moments. If I can barely motivate myself to walk away and DO something... how can I put my faith in the idea that my kids will decide to get up and translate their mad Castle Crashers skills into solving world hunger or even just putting a roof over their own heads someday (and moving out from under mine)?


I have 10 year old boy/girl twins and I have never limited their computer time. They have been taught from a very young age the potential dangers of internet use, the need to give eyes/body a rest occaisionally, the importance of being well rounded, the body's need for sunshine and activity, etc. Each child was given their own laptop at age 5 and I have been delighted and amazed at the things they have investigated and learned from using their computers freely. Both my children are avid, strong readers, very creative problem solvers, and voracious learners. They know how to find good research via the internet and often use the internet to learn everything they can about subjects as diverse as storytelling to chemistry to cartooning to Conway's Game of Life to Minecraft. My feeling has always been that the computer is the most powerful tool at their fingertips, why would I limit their ability to use it?! I think this freedom will allow them to develop skills and discover strengths that I could not foresee. If the next five years are similar to the past five, I believe my children will be very successful at identifying what their passions are, figuring out life goals and how to achieve them, and trusting their own ability to make choices and decisions about what is best for them.

" except in those cases where

" except in those cases where you are telling them that they must do their share of the chores around the house".

Mr. Gray- that statement clunked right to the bottom of my Unschooling stomach. Are you saying we shouldn't impose limits unless they are inconveniencing us at home?! I have a feeling that statement caused quite a few Unschooling jaws to hit the floor.


== Mr. Gray- that statement clunked right to the bottom of my Unschooling stomach.

Clunk is right. Try putting your wife's name in place of the sentence:

"except in those cases where you are telling them that they must do their share of the chores around the house".

and it might become a little clearer why this is so deeply disrespectful to a child.

Why is that "deeply disrespectful?"

When I had roommates, we frequently asked each other to help out with chores. We came to agreements about who would do what and we'd politely remind each other if one of us neglected a responsibility. It wasn't disrespectful to us as adults (indeed, it was constructive and conducive to a comfortable, peaceful home), so why would it be "deeply disrespectful to a child?"

Disrespect and chores...

If adult roommates work together to decide who does what, that is a partnership arrangement, with everyone having (I assume) an equal voice in things, and the rewards are reaped by all.

Chores assigned to children who have no say in them, chores that are designed to make the home meet the parents' standards, and which are not optional ,with parents dictating the timing and adequacy of the work, are not a teamwork arrangement.

These children (many of whom spend their days in schoolrooms they might rather not be in, doing things that adults have deemed necessary, but which numb them, then come home to homework, and then chores.....) are not being treated as partners.

They are being dictated to.

Would you care to be dictated to, with no chance to change things?

Would you want that many of the hours of your life scripted for you, or might you resent that, because, after all, it is your life and your time, and you ought to be able to choose how to spend it?

Children are not less human than adults. Their lives and time are exactly as valuable to them as mine are to me. Their emotions run as deep and true as anyone else's, even if they do not have a voice to say so, within their home or their school.

Assigned and enforced chores also say to kids, quite clearly, that parents do not trust them to take a part in the keeping of the family.

Not only is that disrespectful, it isn't even fair. A child given the freedom to help or not, who feels loved and supported in their life, is very likely to help in ways unique to their character.

My 10 year old son just delivered food to me. Now, he's cooking for his sister.

She just emerged from (yet another!) voluntary bath. She is 7.5.

When I ask them for help , these days, I generally get it, but not always in the degree or fashion I would have expected.

But, just as I would graciously accept a friend's gesture of love and caring, i am learning to respond with the same grace to the help my children offer or agree to give.

Anything that assumes an adult perogative to order children about for adult agendas and conveniences is inherently disrespectful.

If you still cannot see it, imagine being small and powerless and expected to jump at the command of much bigger, more powerful people.

I don't need to imagine it. I lived it. And it did not -ever! - feel like respect, to me.

You're assuming the only way

You're assuming the only way to define responsibilities for a child is to do it in an overbearing, authoritarian manner. I think it's possible to sit down with a kid and describe what needs doing and when in a very respectful way. Heck, I do it with my son all the time. We define his responsibilities and his corresponding allowance. He does additional things unexpectedly sometimes, but he also forgets sometimes. And I remind him of our agreements and his responsibilities.

Nothing about that approach suggests that children are less human than adults. Indeed, it emphasizes that they are human and all humans have responsibilities when they live together.

Since kids are individuals, that means they have different personalities. Some are eager to help out, others not so much. Responding to the latter type with constructive approaches to help them learn about being considerate and helpful is not disrespectful.

And while kids are as human as adults, let's be clear. They aren't adults.

Are we disrespecting kids when we tell them they can't drink or have sex with each other?

Are we dictating to them when we tell them they can't drive or vote?

It's not as black and white as kids simply being small adults.

Thank you for stating that so rationally and clearly

I think we underestimate our kids when we don't give them an opportunity to help around the house and contribute in a meaningful way to their own existence. If anything, it is my insistence on doing things myself so they can be done faster or more efficiently that shows disrespect and nullifies their desire to help out. My 3 year old loves doing laundry, my 4 year old loves to cook, and my 6 year old... well... he loves video games. So now when my 6 year old asks me for lunch and I tell him not until we put away the Play-doh he is no longer playing with, I don't think that is in anyway disrespecting him.

We actually had a good conversation just today when he balked at doing something I requested. I asked him if he would like to make his own lunch. He said, "Sometimes, but I like the things you make too." I told him that I don't paricularly enjoy making lunch, but I do it because it is part of my job to make sure everyone gets fed. My sons are learning that everyone in a household has to share in the responsibility (cleaning, cooking, gardeing, etc.) to enjoy the benefits (healthy & tasty meals, video games, internet, toys, etc).

I also believe they should learn to be good stewards of their environment both inside and out. Which includes cleaning up after themselves, and taking care of their planet and their possessions. I don't see how that in any way introduces disrespect into our relationship.

Chores =/= coersion

The idea that asking a child to help in the full running of a household is surely less discriminatory than demanding nothing of them - adults sharing a house would not let one party pay no bills, earn no money, and do no tidying.
I was brought up with the understanding that, while I couldn't work, it was only reasonable for me to help with the smooth running of the household that provided for me (and even then, I could see I was getting the sweeter end of the deal what with hot meals, clothes, accomodation, and so forth). I've seen kids who lived with the opposite; with the family income pooled and split per head...but the children had none of the outgoings that the parents did. If you're going to let your children self-direct so completely, surely it only makes sense to share responsibility as well as resources?

Reply to comment | Psychology Today

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Chores around the house

Perhaps I should have been clearer that, in my assumption, family members work out ways to share chores and remind one another to do them when they forget. My wife has no problem reminding me about mine, when I forget or get too busy with other things. I probably should have used the term "reminding" rather than telling. -Peter

Make them do WHAT?!?!?

Trish - you must have heard mine! It was there with yours.

Assigning chores is a pretty good way to cheat oneself out of the surprise of having a child volunteer to do, or just go ahead and do, things.

In the past week or so, my no-assigned chores kids have frequently helped to tidy when asked, assisted with dishes and laundry, bathed the dog, cooked, helped with feeding of pets and watereing of pets and plants, chopped firewood with a small axe, brought me coffee, emptied wastebaskets and recycling, redeemed bottles, and gotten the mail.

There might be things I'm overlooking; these are just the ones I remember.

They don't usually mind my asking for their help, although they may choose not to, or choose their own time and way of helping. They are, more and more at 10 and 7.5, understanding what goes into keeping a home, and they are, more and more, helping us tend to more and more of those things.

Peter, I have come to listen to you twice at NEUC and thoroughly enjoyed it both times.

This sentence, though, does not jibe with my reality!

Thanks, Shan

Thanks for this little correction. I didn't mean "tell" in the sense of "order," and should have been more clear. -Peter

Balance is Key?

Regarding the "except in those cases" comment, my impression was that the comment meant kids still have real world responsibilities, and that these shouldn't be neglected by their freedom to make other choices (i.e., video games). I raise my kids with the notion that "no one is your slave," that it's a privilege to have mom & dad doing so much for them, and that as they grow they need to gradually take on more responsibility, because some day it will be all on them.

Re: the overall article, it was good to have a lot of this research collated on this topic. I still think balance is key -- that the physical body needs activity as well as sleep; the eyes need a break; and there is value to real-world socialization. But especially in the case of computer usage, I want my kids to learn this tool and new tools as they come along as long as they're interested -- which they both are in different areas. And my younger is a video game fanatic as well, but this doesn't stop him from a lot of physical activity or tremendous creativity.

I like the point of looking to the individual child and seeing if the screen time is improving the quality of their life or diminishing it. This is the bottom line, and I think the most important point to the article is that we have to be careful about how we assess this. Maybe snap judgments about the value of something -- because someone else said so or whatever -- aren't the way to go. Maybe we have to really see how our own children respond over time, and adapt accordingly.


"Concerning the third claim, I don't see any obvious reason why pretend murder of animated characters in video games should be any more likely to provoke real murder than, say, reading Shakespeare's account of Hamlet's murder of his stepfather. Yet we make kids read Hamlet in school."

But generally kids aren't reading Hamlet until high school, while there are kids playing first-person shooter games at 6 and 7. I'm wondering if there's a point at which these games really aren't age-appropriate, or if we can trust that our kids know when a game isn't right for them.

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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).


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