Not long ago, if you showed up to a family holiday gathering with a hand-held video game for a niece or nephew, you risked being shooed out of the room and treated like a pariah for trying to turn the kids into zombies with video games..
Don't you know video games cause violent behavior? That they decrease school performance? That they will turn the kids into loners?
The real danger of getting a gift like a Leapster Explorer, Nintendo DS or Sony PSP is that it turns parents into the video game police, always threatening to take it away or limit its use. The same goes for TV and borrowing mom’s iPhone. Time limits must be set.
If you’re not the child’s parent, that’s not your concern or problem, but it could create some friction of you don’t ask the parents if giving a video game is acceptable. Buying a popular family game for a home that already has a Nintendo Wii system is probably a safe bet without asking, but putting a hand-held system that only the child will likely use under the Christmas tree has the potential to create problems. It’s like giving a book about religion to a family of atheists.
So before you buy, there are some things to consider:
Can the child grow with the game?
Children get bored quickly with toys, and after a few weeks with a new toy, it can get old and go to the bottom of the toy box. So make sure you pick something with with multiple levels or enough game choices that it will stay fun. If you give them something that they can master now with no problems, it's the wrong toy.
Does the game promote social behavior?
Try to buy games that kids will play with others, either through shared play or simply through shared interest. As long as they can discuss what they're doing with friends who have the same system or can look over each other's shoulders as they play, it can still be a social toy that won't turn them into loners.
Will they learn from it?
You may not believe its marketing ploys, but, for one, the Leapster Explorer at least wants you to believe that you’re getting an educational toy when you buy it. LeapFrog promotes its items in the classroom as a way of teaching kids reading and math. Many of the games for the Explorer point out that they show kids simple math at their skill levels, and kids can advance in the game as they learn.
Is it flexible enough?
Beyond just playing game cartridges, many hand-held systems play games that can be downloaded online and offer other ways to play. For an extra price, the Explorer, for example, has a digital camera and video recorder to extend its playing capabilities. The Nintendo DS is promoted as a toy that the whole family will enjoy, which will make it a lot harder to get it out of a 10-year-old’s hands.
Can they read on it?
LeapFrog’s Explorer claims to help teach children to read, and the V.Reader by VTech looks like a kid’s version of a Kindle and strongly promotes its abilities to teach kids to read. VTech sells toys for ages from birth to age 8, so beware of the age cap.
Is a "real" device better?
There are other hand-held games to choose from for kids — various toys from Sega and Nintendo — but once they get to about age 8 or 9, you might as well put the little kids’ games aside and shell out the big bucks for an iPod Touch. There are even apps that can turn it into a cellphone where WiFi is available, which should save a parent’s iPhone from being mishandled by those small and delicate, but sometimes clumsy, hands.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has worked as a reporter and and editor at newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter &mdash @AaronCrowe.
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