Gaming: A Gift Guide for Parents

I always know when the holiday season is approaching. Even this year, when the snow isn't yet on the ground and I haven't pulled out my toque and puffy coat, I know the holidays are around the corner. It isn't the lights sparkling on the trees or the music playing in the malls that tips me off; rather it's the frequent queries from parents who are all coming to me with a common question. "I want to buy my child a video game that they are going to love AND learn from for the holidays. Help!"

I love getting these questions. Considering I spend the bulk of my time working with The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, an organization from the creators of Sesame Street dedicated to advancing children's learning through digital media, I am pleased to see parents' excitement over video games. It shows that they are increasingly accepting that interactive media can play a positive role in their children's lives.

However, once parents have accepted that video games can actually be good for their young children, choosing which games to buy can be daunting. On the other hand, there have never been so many opportunities for children to learn in new and exciting ways. For instance, if you haven't checked out CBC Kids' very own Wonder World web site, you will be excited to find a terrific, safe and ad-free site where your preschooler's favourite characters guide them through early learning games as well as clips and episodes from high-quality TV shows. But this is just one example, and choosing from the multitude of games available on the market can be extremely overwhelming.

To try and help, below are a few of my favourite games for preschool and elementary aged children this holiday season. I compiled this list based on games that I have been most impressed by recently, as well as reviews of two of my most trusted sources for children's media reviews - Common Sense Media and Children's Technology review.

Preschool Aged Children
# ItzaZoo (Windows): In this exciting learn-to-read game, children's drawings become interactive objects. Drawings are incorporated into the game and animated via a revolutionary technology called "Living Ink." I'm not sure who will be more amazed by the magic behind this game - you or your kids.

# JumpStart 3D Virtual World (Windows): This series has been a leader in educational software for quite some time, but their latest product provides a much-needed modernization to historically good curriculum. In this extensive virtual environment, your child will find numerous games and activities, most of which have a strong early learning component. If you are looking for something that is heavier on traditional education, this is a great option.

# Storybook Workshop (Wii): In an interesting twist on story time, you can now read your child many of their favourite classic folktales on the Wii. Featuring a sing-along mode, mini-games, and a Magic Voice Box option that alters your voice to match storybook characters, Storybook Workshop shouldn't replace book reading, but is certainly a fun addition.

# Didi & Ditto Preschool: Mother Nature's Visit (Mac/Windows): The series' latest installment utilizes their usual charming characters and beautiful graphics to teach about the environment. This is a good option if you want to familiarize your young child with the computer and give them plenty of opportunities to practice using the mouse.

# Ni Hao Kai-Lan, New Year's Celebration (Nintendo DS, Nintendo DSi): If your child wants to get in early on the action of handheld gaming, this is a great age-appropriate option on the popular Nintendo DSi. Your child will help the Chinese-American heroine and grandfather prepare for a Chinese New Year festival using a large variety of different game types.

Elementary Aged Children

# Little Big Planet (PS3, PSP): Though not new for this year, there aren't many games that encourage creativity and inventiveness the way LBP does. A unique puzzle game and game-creating kit all in one, children join a community to explore how to make games. This is a great one to play with your child, either online or on the same console.

# Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS, Nintendo DSi): As implied by its catchphrase "Write Anything, Solve Everything", the objective of this game is to complete puzzles by writing the name of objects on the screen. Essentially, children can spell into existence any object they need to solve a puzzle. To succeed at this unique puzzle game, children need to use a combination of their imagination and literacy skills.

# Beatles Rockband (Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3): Your family turns into a rock band using musical instruments with color-coded buttons that correspond to the beat of popular songs on-screen. While one would be hard-pressed to call this game educational, considering parents grew up with The Beatles, and kids grew up playing Rock Band, this is a fabulous game for kids and parents to play together.

# Flower (PlayStation 3): The experience of playing Flower is more like going to the spa than playing a video game, and is great for the child who is not the typical "gamer". This stunningly beautiful game with a green message offers no lives to lose or points to win; the objective is simply to go with the game's calming flow, sending petals flittering through meadows, causing flowers to blossom.

# Crayon Physics Deluxe (Mac/Windows, iPhone, iPod): This innovative game that combines physics with drawing will astound both you and your child. The technology turns your scribbles into objects that have weight and mass, helping you solve 76 puzzles which all share the same goal - to get a ball to roll over to a star.

Video games have been called the board games of the 21st Century. They can bring families together in a social, interactive and intergenerational experience that is fun for everyone. If you do include video games in your gift-giving this holiday season, don't forget the most important rule - after the presents are unwrapped, play the games together as a family. You may just find yourself having as much fun as your children. Happy Gaming!

Carly Shuler is a researcher, developer, and author in the children's media and toy industry. Carly graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a Masters in Technology in Education, and is currently a Fellow with The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

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