Early Childhood Education

Computer and Video Game Play in Early Childhood


Computer and video games are becoming increasingly present in young children’s lives. According to a national early childhood study in the United States, 70 percent of children between the ages of four and six years have used a computer, and 56 percent have used a computer without sitting on a parent’s lap. Eighteen percent of children age 6 and under use a computer on a daily basis, and 9 percent play video games on a daily basis. This figure includes 11 percent of children age 2 and under who use a computer on a daily basis and 3 percent who play video games on a daily basis (Rideout, Vandewater, and Wartella, 2003).

With most forms of play media, the essence of the game exists in the interactions between the players and the physical media—blocks, sticks, dolls, pinecones, paints, etc. Unlike most forms of play media, the essence of computer and video games exists in the interactions between the players and the nontangible experiences that are facilitated by the hardware and software, rather than the hardware and software themselves (Salonius-Pasternak and Gelfond, 2005). This lack of physical media is of particular interest and concern for young children.


Types of Games

Several category systems exist for describing different types of computer and video games. The following categories are used by game designers and incorporate the language often used by the players themselves:

• Real Time Strategy (RTS)

• First-Person Shooters (FPS)

• Empire Builders

• Simultations

• Role Playing Games (RGP)

• Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games (MMRPG)

• Sports

• Puzzles

• “Edutainment”

These games can be played on computers, consoles, and smaller mobile devices, that is, phones, PDAs, and dedicated game players like Nintendo’s GameBoy (Scarlett et al., 2004).


Electronic Play for Infants and Toddlers

Electronic play is progressively being developed and marketed toward younger children, even infants. Most software designed for infants is referred to as “lapware,” which is geared toward parents and infants using the programs together. However, other than the social interaction and physical contact with their parents, it is unclear whether this kind of play has any other value (Scarlett et al., 2004). Most early childhood educators believe that young children benefit from interactions with people and objects that can respond directly to children’s initiatives—characteristics that are not easily available in programmed electronics. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated that children under the age of twenty-four months should not watch television, since crucial aspects of brain development during this time seem to rely on more tangible play experiences. The AAP has also recommended that children over the age of twenty-four months should not be exposed to screen media for more than two hours each day (AAP, 1999).

There is perhaps more potential for toddlers over the age of twenty-four months to experience some benefits from electronic play. Toddlers’ cognitive capabilities are expanding to include the ability to use and recognize various forms of symbolic representations. This ability seems to be a basic requirement for electronic play because so much of electronic play has to do with appreciating the meaning of images or symbols. Time will tell whether enhanced programming and design can truly provide special advantages for toddlers. However, right now, there does not seem to be any special advantages of electronic play over traditional types of toddler play. What is clear is that the benefits of sociodramatic and constructive play are not easily incorporated into toddlers’ electronic play.

In addition, there are concerns that electronic play for toddlers may only serve as a negative distraction. An important developmental task for toddlers is the development of a sense of self, which allows them to recognize that they are separate from others and separate from the world around them. The world of electronic play may be too sophisticated for these young children, who are still unclear about boundaries between themselves and the physical world around them, let alone a world of depicted illusions.


Electronic Play for Preschoolers

Preschool children have the cognitive ability to engage in make-believe, which gives them greater access to the play worlds of computer and video games. They can imitate models that are not present and are theorized to find, in their play, multiple ways to represent the reality of the world around them as well as the inner reality of their interpretations. Their play tends to focus on construction through a variety of play media—building forts with blocks, drawing, or painting pictures of home life—and the use of narratives in creating stories using dolls about fairly elaborate fantasy worlds. They can engage in all kinds of play requiring symbolizing, organizing, and planning—both alone and in cooperation with others. These capabilities may begin to allow them access to some of the beneficial aspects of computer and video games.

In spite of this perceived readiness for playful engagement with video games and computers, most of those designed for preschoolers fall into the category of Edutainment and focus on academic aspects of school readiness. Although this may be enjoyable or beneficial for some children, it is important to remember that these games do not necessarily include opportunities to construct or create new worlds; nor even to develop motor skills, which is another important area of development for young children. Preschoolers are focusing on developing fine- and gross motor skills through physical exploration, which also helps to facilitate their cognitive development, as they begin to make sense of the world around them. More tangible types of play media, that is, wooden blocks rather than electronic play, may be better suited to these particular goals. While most types of computer or console games provide children with an opportunity to practice hand-eye coordination, they also tend to exclude gross motor skills. In addition, these games may limit children’s exploration to specific activities that are determined by the software and input devices, whereas virtually the only factor that limits children’s exploration of wooden blocks is their own imagination. Furthermore, some parents and teachers believe that learning important concepts through everyday, “real-life” experiences provides a richer cognitive experience for preschoolers because this learning takes place within a naturally occurring environment. However, a natural environment does not insure a richer cognitive experience any more than a video game entails something less than beneficial. While concerns about excess time spent with computers and video games are real, their potentially negative effects should not be exaggerated. Children typically do not exclusively play video games. Instead, playing video games is typically only one of many activities that children engage in; and thus, video games, when appropriate and controlled, might complement, rather than replace, other types of activities suitable for young children.



In considering both the potential benefits and the possible risks that may be associated with young children playing computer and video games, it is important to note that these forms of technology in the lives of young children represent a relatively new and complex phenomenon. Many of the studies that have been conducted so far in this area of research have found inconclusive or inconsistent results. In addition, debates are frequent among several differing perspectives represented by parents, educators, and researchers. Where there is agreement, it is in the opinion that, although computer use and video games provide some potential benefits, they should not replace other types of children’s social, physical, and cognitive activities such as outdoor play, constructive play, and dramatic play. Instead, computers and video games should be among many activities in which children engage, as a complement to rather than substitute for other, more physical and interactive activities. To continue our inquiry and expand our understanding in both research and applied settings, it will be important to keep an open mind to the potentials of children’s uses of these and other technologies. It will also be important, when studying young children’s use of computer and video games, to consider both individual and contextual factors that may play a role in shaping the influences of electronic play on child development and early learning. See also Academics; Symbolic Languages; Curriculum, Technology.

Further Readings: American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (1999). Media education. Pediatrics 104(2), 341-343; Rideout, Victoria J., Elizabeth A. Vandewater, and Ellen A. Wartella (2003). Zero to six: Electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Menlo Park, CA: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; Salonius-Pasternak, Dorothy E., and Holly S. Gelfond (2005). The next level of research on electronic play: Potential benefits and contextual influences for children and adolescents. Human Technology: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Humans in ICT Environments 1(1), 5-22; Scarlett, W. George, Sophie Naudeau, Dorothy E. Salonius-Pasternak, and Iris C. Ponte (2004). Children’s play. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dorothy E. Warner