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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Last Starfighter and Piano Lessons

I must admit. I do allow my children to play video games, watch television and movies, all in moderation of course. There are cognitive benefits for children who play certain types of video games. I'll discuss that later in my commentary. There are benefits to watching TV too. But that depends on what is watched and how often. My son loves the Discovery Channel. Any shows on nature or the weather and he is mesmerized. He also loves shows on the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and the misnomer- Family Channel. Watching the former is learning, but passively. He is not actively engaged in the field of science. It is similar to attending a lecture. So, even though these nature shows are great, they must be taken in small doses. But they are far better than the latter. I watched a day of shows on the children's channels. The sitcoms are funny, entertaining, but also horribly designed. The characters on these programs do not exhibit respect for authorities (parents and adults) and kids get the wrong impression of how children should interact with adults.

There are times, probably more than I'd like to admit, when a couple hours have passed without my intervention to get the kids off the TV. I may have been occupied with a task and enjoyed the uninterrupted time. But more often than not, my wife or I inform the kids there is no TV today, or for the week. We call it a "no electronics" day. The kids of course whine, complain or begrudgingly begin an activity, but soon enough all is well. They're reading, painting, playing or just doing the weird games only kids can invent. Days like this are easier if the weather is nice or you're on vacation . But I have found that as time passes and they get used to not watching TV, it is easier to get them do alternate activities that don't require a battery. Give kids an umbrella, some Tupperware and string, you'd be surprised what they can do.

Video Games Improve Concentration and other Cognitive Skills

I remember a few years ago I had a professor of writing conducting a workshop with my fourth-graders. He was hired by our school district to prepare them for the Connecticut Mastery Tests, specifically the writing and reader-response portion. Yup, it was boring; boring for me and the students. He was using a basic scaffolding to teach the mechanics of expository writing, snckzzzzz. The only thing I remember from his mundane lesson was how he referred to the kids who played video games. He called them "Vidiots". Initially, it was funny...still is. But the more I thought about it, the more I didn't like his term. I cannot stand it when people, especially educators, insult or belittle students. It just serves no purpose. I can't stand the retro, old-school stupidity tossed around by people who think the way things were was better. It wasn't. The second thought brought me to a 1984 movie The Last Starfighter. For those of you in my generation, it was right in the midst of the arcade craze. The movie was about a high school boy Alex, who was turned down for a student loan for college. He meets a man named Centauri. Centauri informs the boy that he invented the video game Starfighter that Alex plays so well. Earlier in the day, Alex set the all-time high score. Eventually Alex discovers that the video game is actually a trainer and tester to find people (Earthlings) with the speed, skill and dexterity to pilot a real, extra-terrestrial star fighter (space ship). Coincidently there is truth to this science fiction script.

According to Dr. Restak, a leading neuroscientist, video games, if used wisely can help you notice more, concentrate better, respond more quickly, and increase several components of your overall IQ. The effects induced by regular video-gaming can be compared to what occurs in the brain of a concert pianist (Restak, 2009).  He does offer two caveats in addition to his research. One is that violent video games have no or even negative impacts on the gamers, and two, that too much gaming reverses the benefits. So, moderation. His book Think Smart is a fantastic read. It details, among many other things, ways of increasing your brain's performance. Children who play particular types of video games that require attention to detail, finger dexterity and sustained focus develop parts of the supplementary motor cortex, the brain area responsible for planning the finger movements required for each selection. With increase experience and practice, the neural connections are strengthened and made more efficient. This is true for practicing pianists and video-gamers. These applications can be used in real world situations such as finding people in a crowd, ability to focus and information processing speeds.

Just as important to good brain health and staving off alzheimer's and reduced brain-function is using your brain in a positive, interactive manner. Do things such as crossword puzzles, cards, cryptograms and anything that requires thinking and problem-solving. Learn a new language, take up a musical instrument, build models. Activities such as these build more efficient connections. The help keep your brain "in shape". We're all familiar with the saying "use it or lose it". Well it's true. So keep that wonderful nugget in your skulls busy.

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