What About TV and Video Games?
Kathy Ward, in the early 21st century

Frequently other parents tell me they are concerned that their children will only want to watch TV and play video games if their families were to try unschooling. I've gone through my own set of concerns about those same things. In fact when I was seriously realizing that we were on the cusp of placing our second son's education solely in his hands, my first thoughts were, "He'll only want to ride his dirt bike and play video games." And to some extent that was true for a while. But eventually I came to trust the process and understand that he was learning, and enjoying it. He was setting his own pace and learning in the best ways for him. He was having fun too.

Watching the process of deschooling and really listening attentively to the kids have helped dispel these fears.


Over the years, we've lived in places where TV reception has been spotty and cable service frequently unavailable. When we lived in the mountains with four young children, there was virtually no TV reception and we purchased a monthly cable service. This provided regular networks, CNN, Nickelodeon, and a movie channel. I guess this would be called “the basics,” certainly not a glitzy package deal. It was there and we all watched it sometimes, but our young kids at that time were more interested in exploring the hills, playing with friends, working on their favorite projects, drawing or building things, and watching occasional videotapes. We didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time watching TV or channel surfing, certainly not the 3 ½ plus hours that I’ve read are the nationwide average.

When our family moved a few miles out into the desert we had no access to a cable company so we put an antenna on the roof and hoped for the best. Two mountain ranges blocked most of the reception. Again, it seemed to be just enough. The kids were adjusting to a real rural lifestyle with newly acquired farm animals, much tree planting and gardening, as well as the wide and rocky Mojave Desert to explore. TV seemed to be a nonissue.

One fateful day my husband announced that he would really like to place a small satellite dish on our roof. Personally, I rather do like television. Not all of the time and not indiscriminately, but I like it. I like to see visual representations of history, different geographic settings, and science. I have a fascination with foreign subtitled films, even cheesy ones. I like to read copiously, too. Sometimes I like to do both at once, view off-handedly and read. I value the luminescent quality of a video display of the mountains of Hawaii or the high Andes or a Mediterranean island. I like to see the way that life is lived in other parts of the world. So I went along with the program. The kids were interested and their father was happy. I did have my doubts, but I was willing to see how the scenario played out. The small dish hanging from our eves gave us crystal-clear pictures from more channels than anyone could exhaust in a lifetime.

Many of my friends had strong notions about TV. Most of our friends at that time strictly rationed TV, some forbid it altogether except for using it as a videotape conveyance. Many of them felt that there was something intrinsically wrong with their children watching TV. I wasn’t entirely convinced that there was something inherently destructive to an active, fertile, creative mind in viewing televised images. However, I had heard enough of the arguments that I was somewhat afraid of having a household of zombies who would only emerge from their TV-induced trances to fight over the channel changer. And perhaps to eat...or to demand the latest trendy article up for mass consumption.

Initially there was a glut of viewing, but to my surprise the kids did practice interpersonal negotiating skills to work out viewing preferences among so many. They continued to engage in all of their favorite activities and their social lives continued. Friends from around the corner who had no TV came over to participate in the viewing frenzy. Eventually it all calmed down. Maybe the novelty wore off, maybe the kids established their preferences, maybe they realized that I wasn't going to take this wonderful thing and ration it out—but was going to trust them to use it the way that they needed to. Probably it was all of those things. Now something like a decade later, I can say that TV is a good thing, it's a learning tool, and I'm really glad that I let it in.

The children have continued to read, they were not rendered illiterate, and TV sometimes sparks an interest in an unexpected topic. One son picked up a phenomenal amount of information about animals from nature and animals shows. He had been spending a good part of his time raising and tending our chickens, ducks, and geese and the knowledge he gained from television was not insignificant. One daughter has built her knowledge of medicine, surgery, and the latest in brain science through TV. All of this occurred a few years prior to our Internet access. I’ll grant that currently my children pull down more information from the Internet than from TV. For us, TV is a reasonable proposition, and I’m glad to give it a chance. I recently read an essay by a well-known author that referred to TV as 5% pure water versus 95% sewage. No, my own experience doesn’t go along with that. Here, in fact, some of the topical weirdness, blatant merchandising strategies, visual schemes for our attention, and shallow presentations are grist for our family mill. We are a big, sprawling crowd and we have a lot to discuss whether the TV is on or off.

Video Games

My husband, the kids, and I have spent hours discussing video games and their fascination for some of us. Many parents that I know (of homeschooled and not homeschooled children) spend a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to limit their children's access to video games. I've seen articles that try to answer the question "Are they addictive?" I've seen articles both pro and con—it's something most of us are going to have to deal with if we have children that are at all interested in video games. Most of my children find them at least somewhat appealing, some of my children find them very appealing.

I'd like to list here some of the benefits to being given access to video games that my oldest children (teens and grown) have come up with.

The first game that they mentioned was Tetris which has been around for a while but some of the younger kids enjoy playing. Everyone agreed that it was a great game for developing and improving mathematical thinking. The puzzles require some thinking about patterns and ability to recognize and recall geometric designs. Even the little kids enjoy it. I don't know why a parent would love to see a child spend an hour at a time figuring out puzzles like this in a workbook or on paper but be dismayed that the same child was doing this on a computer or a video game system. In fact, the whole thing is more challenging on the game system because it moves and changes, it's more interactive than geometric puzzles on a piece of paper.

When I told the older children that I was interested in putting their ideas about video games on this webpage the main thing that they all wanted me to address was role playing games (RPGs). Currently these are what they find the most interesting. Here are some specific games that they mentioned and what they think can be learned from the games. I imagine that any game could be examined for this kind of content.

The kids all agreed that the games serve to develop thinking skills and problem solving skills. They felt that the role playing games they enjoy the most served to develop logical thinking and sequential reasoning ability. Some of the games have enlarged their vocabularies. Some of the games have introduced them to foreign languages and to cultural differences that they've continued to investigate.

Some games make it necessary to memorize floor plans and develop spatial reasoning in order to be successful. One of these is the old computer game Doom. My kids don't play this much since they've discovered the more intricate role playing games. Doom is basically a shoot-the-bad-guys game but it does require a lot of spatial reasoning to work your way through the levels. It's still a somewhat popular game with my 10 year old son and his friends. The adventure/horror game Resident Evil requires a fairly high level of spatial reasoning to navigate successfully.

The game Final Fantasy 7 is artistically appealing to all of the older kids. They enjoy viewing the different worlds that are portrayed and observing the continuity within each world. They think that this particular game is, in fact, artistically inspiring. My daughter in law is an artist who has drawn inspiration from this game and others in some of her work. When I get a better scanner, maybe she'll let me scan some of her work to illustrate this.

The game Gran Turismo has what appears to be some pretty realistic physics of motion happening. And a big vocabulary of auto mechanics, for anyone interested in that subject.

Xenogears is full of Biblical references and moral issues that the players can discuss and deal with. It has plot twists that have a literary feel to them.

Metal Gear Solid has a military flavor along with a military vocabulary and has provoked much discussion about history, various cultures, warfare, and questions of morality that surround those things. Geography is something that can be learned from this and other games.

Each of the kids felt that RPGs were a springboard to investigating subjects that he or she might not have considered. Some of these investigations have turned into long-range and intensive studies. Sure, there may be other ways to happen upon these interests but I'm glad we didn't cut off this avenue. The RPGs have provided enjoyment and further learning.

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