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My son will be 4 soon, and he already enjoys playing a few educational games on my tablet or his mother's phone (he plays maybe as much as an hour a week).

I'm a gamer, and we've tried playing a few "real" games together, such as Mario Kart.

He doesn't grok controls very well. We can show him specific combinations of controls, but he has trouble putting them all together, and invariably winds up getting stuck. Once he gets stuck, it stops being fun for him, and he decides to do something else.

The answer may simply be "wait until he's old enough to figure it out on his own", but I'm not sure. Should I be trying to teach him how to work the controls on video games?

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No screens before two, and less than two hours per day after that - m.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201310/… i suspect a four year old is not going to enjoy most games until they have the hand eye coordination. For most children this is going to be older than four. I am not sure how much they are going to enjoy the competition. So, age appropriate games, or set your own goals in games. –  DanBeale Jun 4 at 20:14
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Hand/eye coordination and action/consequence connections - both of which don't really start taking hold until older than 5 on average. Even then, I had cousins who owned super smash bros - instead of fighting eachother, they "played house" because the sister didn't like to fight in the game... All kids are different, with different aptitudes and preferences. Introduce games, but don't force them. –  Doc Jun 4 at 20:23

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I am a game developer, and probably guilty of over-exposing my two daughters to video games. I make an attempt to limit the amount of time they get with digital devices, but introduced them both to touch devices at a young age. (At least we don't have a TV in the house! I'm more against exposure to mass media advertising than screens per-se.) My older daughter learned to use a d-pad style controller using an ipad (with a simple platformer), and was able to learn to use a playstation controller with a little practice, once her hands were big enough to hold it.

I think the most important thing with kids and games is to be part of the play as much as possible. Don't just leave them there to play alone. Play with them, teach them, help them. This can be hard with touch devices, which tend to isolate the player in their own world, which is why I recommend playing co-op games on a console.

Racing games are fun, but with my own kids I've noticed that they are actually somewhat harder than platform games. There is a lot of control involved, and when you fall behind, or crash, there is a high frustration level. This is why I encourage co-op play where going slow and helping your child is a defined goal of the game.

In my opinion, the best and most fun game to play with kids is Little Big Planet 2. The game is visually fun and quite forgiving about controls. It is easy to find simple user-created levels online that don't require any technical platforming, with a focus on exploration, problem solving, or roleplaying. Because the game is co-op, you can guide and assist your child by grabbing onto them in-game, or having them hold on to you while you swing / grapple / swim etc. There is a creative aspect to the game as well. You can dismantle the levels and move items around. Sometimes my daughter will spend ages just dressing up, or decorating the "pod". For older kids, there is a creative mode where you can create entire levels. This is a lot of fun, and you could also make special customised levels for your own child if you want to.

A note on game genres: Personally, I have a strong preference for letting my children play fast paced / coordination based games than "casual" games. While they may often seem mentally stimulating, they are frequently engineered to produce addiction using psychological techniques originally developed for gambling machines. The mobile market is saturated with these kinds of games. Be especially wary of free-to-play casual games. I tend to think it is better to pay for a game with a pay-up-front business model, than one one that comes free but uses psychological manipulation to try to get money out of people. (Especially children.)

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Little Big Planet 1 and 2 here as well. My two eldest kids love to compete against each other to get the most baubles etc, and my youngest likes the self-build aspect –  Rory Alsop Jun 5 at 15:16
    
+1 LBP 1 & 2 are favorites with my two boys (4 and 6). We switched to co-op games (including Lego games too) after the eldest kept trouncing the youngest at MarioKart because the youngest couldn't work the controls. The benefit for both of them has been learning to accurately instruct the other about what they wanted to do. It went rapidly from "push the thing!" to "Stand next to the gray block and hold down the square button, then walk toward the wall." This has translated to better interactions in real life too. Also, I agree about avoiding casual games. –  KitFox Jun 6 at 0:13

Could you get something touchscreen for him? Our daughter loves playing video games on our phones and get Surface - she's a pro at Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds. She seems interested in playing games on our XBox One, but doesn't quite have the control figured out. Starting on the touchscreen might help him get the mechanics of playing games until the manual dexterity of using a controller fleshes itself out.

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Your questions are very interesting ones indeed. And I admire your effort to share one of your passions with your child so early. I am a gamer myself and I'm planning how I'm going to approach my kids so as to not force my passion upon them (I'm the kind of person that can and will play almost anything, be it electronic or not). My advice has this main core objective: I want my children to play video games if/because they like them, not because i like them.

Some Explanation

The main issues related to both of your questions are that your kid is still at an early age. Right now:

  • he probably can't hold a controller well because it's probably heavy for him, which makes it difficult and uncomfortable to use.
  • since he is only 3 years old, his eye-hand coordination isn't completely developed enough to effectively play and watch the effects of his plays on a screen.
  • the kid is developing some of the more simple cognitive processes (regarding to language and other stuff that seems trivial when you're a grown up) that we do when we are very young.

So be a little more patient with your kid. He will probably surprise you (I'm a firm believer that kids these days are way faster learners than we were).

Recommendations:

This activity with the tablet seems to be working well and already puts him in a situation where he has to learn how to control something using a limited part of his body. These controls are also pretty simple and make it easy to play and watch because you play at the same spot you watch. Therefore, you probably want activities that are similar to this one (not necessarily involving actual video games).

I'd recommend you to try more activities to develop his eye-hand coordination that do not involve video games as a a form of indirect training, such activities like: drawing, painting, telling stories and any other activity in which the kid has an active role will help him develop the cognitive skills and coordination to be able to play games.

One final piece of advice is: his curiosity will be in your favor. Kids are curious by nature, they are very young and don't know much about the world, so things that are far boring to you (per over exposition) may be new and intriguing to them, when your kid gets to age 4-5 his cognitive skills will have reached a point that he now can express his curiosity better, that will be a better time to introduce him to a few more complex video games.

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My experience with my son is that he built up to complex commands, mostly on his own. We started with a game like Lego Star Wars (which is great because of the co-op and drop-in/out features). Initially he could figure out running around and blasting things (two hands, one button), but had trouble with things like "using the force" which required using a different button and holding it for awhile.

Initially, we played with him and it was fun, but my wife and I got bored of playing the same levels that he enjoyed over and over again. So he would want to play and mommy or daddy would come help when he got stuck. Eventually he got tired of waiting for us to help him and mastered those controls. Still, very little in that game is complicated.

We moved on to Lego Batman, a game with more difficult and complex controls, and had a similar learning curve, and the pattern repeated almost exactly.

Recently he started playing Lego Harry Potter with my wife and mastered some fairly complex controls (selecting a spell, for instance) within a few minutes rather than weeks.

Before he started playing, I re-started playing games for the first time since he was born and he enjoyed watching me play and bossing me around. I remember trying to talk him into playing my game, but the controls were much too hard. He had an active interest, but didn't want the frustration. In the end, I found it pretty enjoyable to spend the time together and it seemed natural for him to join in when he was ready.

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My children don't have touchscreen and enjoy video games, but we don't allow them very often (maybe once a week). I think we have started about one or two years ago, they would have been around 4 year old at that time. We have a Wii. We let them play with Animal crossing, where there is limited need for complicate controls (you can do many things, but you don't have to, so it is still fun any how you play it). We also let them play with Mario Kart. Initially we set up the wheels with an elastic band around the "2" (I think it is 2, I am not home to check, the one button that you need to press to move forward :)), because they couldn't remember to press it all the time. Now we have removed the elastic bands, and they do it very well themselves (they are 5 and 6 now). We also let them play with all other Mario games. The easiest one is Mario Sunshine, because there is no quick thing to do, they can just wander around and that allows them to test and remember the buttons. No way they would do a race or a fight or any action-reaction game, even now that they are 5 and 6, they would just freak out. :) Since you have Mario Kart, instead of doing a race, put an elastic band around the "move forward" button and start a "coins race", less stressful for the kids.

But if he doesn't think it is fun, then I wouldn't try and convince him. He will soon want to play all day long, so just enjoy that time when he doesn't yet bother you every two minutes with that.

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