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Kinect for Kids: The Forgiven Video Games?

Kinect for Kids: The Forgiven Video Games?

Video games have been blamed for everything from triggering violent behavior in kids to promoting childhood obesity, but despite the hand-wringing, their popularity keeps growing. The solution? Make games that are educational, interactive and physically as well as mentally engaging -- at least, that's the premise behind the latest Kinect offerings from Microsoft, developed with Sesame Street and Nat Geo.

By Erika Morphy
10/20/11 9:24 AM PT

Microsoft is partnering with two of the most visible players in the education industry -- Sesame Workshop and National Geographic -- to roll out a series of new "edutainment" video games for its Xbox 360 platform.

The games -- "Kinect Sesame Street TV," "Kinect Nat Geo TV" and the code-named "Project Columbia" -- let children interact with characters on screen, taking advantage of the Kinect motion camera accessory. The young viewers can, for example, sing or count along with Elmo and Cookie Monster on "Sesame Street," or explore a jungle with Nat Geo's "Wild" TV shows, with Kinect's full-body and voice recognition.

"Project Columbia," designed in collaboration with the Sesame Workshop Curriculum Team, encourages children to read by bringing stories to life via multisensory Kinect.

Microsoft did not respond to TechNewsWorld's request to comment further for this story.

Just Right or Too Much?

Few parents would shun a carefully designed, educationally oriented game for their children. However, as video games and television seem to become a staple in children's lives -- and as childhood obesity numbers continue to skyrocket -- some worry about the proliferation of digital content.

"Today's children are increasing the amount of screen time that they engage in, and what we know through past research is that very young children learn best through person-to-person interactions," Gillian Ogilvie, supervisor of Starfish's Partnering with Parents program, told TechNewsWorld.

"The best way for young children to learn is through interactive play with a caregiver or with independent play with a caregiver nearby," she maintained.

That said, children love their video games -- and the vast majority have plenty of exposure and access to them. So educational games based on scientific research would seem to be a step in the right direction.

"Nothing beats plain old-fashioned play," said Marina Krcmar, an expert on the effects of television and video games on young children and professor of communication at Wake Forest University.

However, there is room for an interactive, educational game in a child's development -- depending on the quality of the content, she told TechNewsWorld. "Certainly, Sesame Street has a long history of conducting and using research to develop quality media."

The titles fit with what professionals know about how children learn, she added. "Interactivity leading to immersion -- how engaged the viewer is in the program -- is important. It can work in a positive manner, such as learning the alphabet, or it can be a problematic learning experience, such as when kids learn to be aggressive from playing violent video games."

Being able to talk back to the game is important for very young children, she added. "So is the ability to learn one thing and then apply it to another situation. I would hope to see games that are fun to play but have a relevance that can be transferred to an outside situation."

Unexplored Depths

Still, there is much about the brain's development -- especially a child's brain -- that is unknown, observed Srini Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, in which he addresses many of the subtleties underlying brain development.

It may be that video games are better for a brain's development than many have thought.

Even video games designed to be reasonably mindless may result in widespread enhancements of learning, suggests research recently published in the journal Neuron, noted Pillay.

Apparently, unfocused activities enhance activity in the brain's default mode network -- a network of brain regions including memory and emotional centers that usually process information in the unconscious, he explained.

"When this network is activated, introspection and creativity may increase," said Pillay. "If activity is goal-directed, this network is quieter or deactivated, and depending on the goal, other brain regions may activate."

Certain games are helpful for children with ADD, he noted, because they enhance development of such areas of the brain as the prefrontal cortex.

On the other hand, too much anxiety may disrupt the brain's ability to integrate information, said Pillay, "so overexcitement from playing should also be monitored. The anxiety center of the brain is connected to the thinking centers -- therefore over-excitement may disrupt decision-making and disrupt learning."

Mix It Up

If handled properly, learning on the Kinect can be a positive experience, especially as many children are visual learners, said Len Saunders, a children's health, fitness and wellness specialist, and author of the book, Keeping Kids Fit.

However, "we do not want our children to become conditioned to only learning through the Kinect, as this can cause a 'dependency learning" issue, where a child gets too acclimated to only one learning style," he told TechNewsWorld. "So, if a parent mixes up learning, it can have a positive effect."


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