Digital Play vs. Traditional Play for Children

Digital play is becoming more popular for children with the expanding library of apps, video games, and technologies. So is digital play bad for children’s development, socialization, and mental health? Is traditional play going extinct or is it here to stay?

Importance of Play

Occupational therapists often stress the importance of play and playtime in a child’s development. Play allows children to explore their environment physically, mentally, and socially. They learn to interact with parents and friends, objects, and develop their body systems such as balance, vestibular system, and more. They learn to communicate, read non-verbal cues, share with others, take turns, learn rules, and build self-esteem.

So does digital play lack some or all of these benefits?

Critique of Digital Play

Some critics are concerned about digital play for several reasons:

  1. Children play in isolation and are not as social.
  2. Children are not autonomous.
  3. Children are “hooked” by stimuli rather than the purpose of the game,
  4. Children earn extrinsic rewards instead of intrinsic ones.

Let’s try to counter each point in favor of digital play.

Digital “Baby Sitter”

Just like how parents may use television such as Disney+ to act as the “babysitter” to get some work done, parents may use digital play such as handing a child a phone to keep them “busy”. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, I think both methods — using it to keep kids busy and also to promote digital play can be beneficial. It does not need to be black and white.

And parents should not have to feel guilty about using it as a “distraction”. I think it’s more of the type of game or content that is consumed that is important. If it is educational in nature, then I think it may be just as valuable. Remember, children may be neurodiverse and not all of them benefit the same way say, from reading a book. Many children may prefer to learn by audiovisual methods such as through videos or interactive games.

One way parents can promote play while using digital methods as a “distraction” is to (1) use educational content and (2) follow-up and see what the child has learned and gained from the experience by communicating, asking them what they did, and “co-playing” with them later.

Social Component

And with the popularity of the Internet and Wifi, not all games, as we know are played in isolation. Many children may play socially with other friends or adults locally or online. The key is to make sure they are safe and playing games in, chat features or voice chat may disabled, for example, to protect them from online predators. Many games can still be played in “co-op” mode or side by side on the same TV screen or in “couch mode” with the family.

Autonomy

What do they mean when children are not as autonomous? Sure, a large majority of the games out there are programmed to follow a story line or path and is linear. There is often only one way to win or complete the game. However, lately, there have been a lot of releases of “open-world” or “creative” type games such as Minecraft or Animal Crossing that I would argue are quite “autonomous”.

Many children such as those with autism thrive in games like Minecraft. Minecraft for children with autism gives them structure, creates a safe social space, lets them filter their experience, and helps them unleash their imaginations. And that is something very unique to digital play compared to traditional play. As we understand video games more for children and children with disabilities, more of these types of games will be developed and benefit both children and parents.

Over-stimulation?

The point that children are hooked by the stimuli rather than the game itself may be true in some games, but obviously not all. Not all games have a lot of stimuli and flashy screens that serve no purpose. Puzzle games are a great example of this and are no different than say, real-life checkers. A lot of games may challenge children’s cognition and thinking such as board games that have been digitized.

I would argue that it allows some children such as those with poor fine motor abilities to play such games in a way that they would not be able to in real life due to physical barriers. It is all up to parents and the games they choose for their children to play — stimulating or not. And there are many titles that promote cognitive development. Many games are not just “idle” type games. If you remember Dance Dance Revolution and Wii sports, these types of games promote movement and exercise and have had many benefits in the adult rehabilitation world with “Wiihab” and the like.

Rewards

And last, the 4th point is that children are provided external rewards such as trophies, prizes, unlocks, tokens, and virtual toys. Yes, many games operate like this to entice players and keep them playing to unlock the next level or pick up the game again. However, many games have delayed rewards, and some which offer no rewards altogether. Puzzle or world-building games may give children a sense of accomplishment while promoting their creativity. There is also a social component in which you can share your “game world” with your friends and online.

Games like Pokemon Go have allowed families to play a multiplayer game together while doing things like walking to unlock pokemon that is linked to internal rewards (ie, better fitness) to external rewards (ie, collecting pokemon) This can give children purpose and each them patience. Sure, there are coins that can be purchased in this game, but it can also be played for free and teach children important lessons about working hard and persistence to earn these same coins in other ways besides spending real-life money. Digital play is not always about consuming and collecting, but it can be about building, experimenting, messing up, re-trying, and learning.

Jeff’s Insights

I think both digital play and traditional play have their place for children. As digital technology become more a part of our lives, it is important for children to engage in digital play with appropriate titles that are age-appropriate for “digital literacy and development”.

I think parents should see what their children are most interested in (digital or traditional) and go from there. To me, intrinsic interest and motivation are what will drive learning and behavior that will continue to be repeated rather than what parents always think is best for their kids. It should be a collaborative arrangement, just like how parents buy toys for their children.

Parents should structure both digital play and traditional play with a variety of games, titles, toys, and groups that is financially affordable. One can argue that a lot of digital titles are even free and you just need a device, compared to buying more real-life toys. Of course, traditional play can be “free” also, such as playing at the playground.

The most important thing is that parents know what children are playing and the types of social features and content are included in the game to protect them for safety from adults, adult content, and adult themes.

 

Jeff is a licensed occupational therapist and lead content creator for OT Dude. He covers all things occupational therapy as well as other topics including healthcare, wellness, mental health, technology, science, culture, sociology, philosophy, and more.