If you’ve bought a car within the last several years … it’s got a computer in it. Or several. There’s less and less that you can take your car to a “mechanic” for now. You need a technician. Ain’t many tools left under the shade tree, either. Technicians use diagnostic equipment. If you work as a cashier in McDonald’s … you use a computer (granted, one with little pictures of hamburgers and fries on it). And we’re fast approaching a time when to even get that job at McDonald’s, you’ll need a computer (many service industry jobs now allow or even require that résumés be submitted online). As computer interaction grows unavoidable, it follows, then, that computer literacy, even mastery, is becoming increasingly mandatory.

If we must understand and use computers to get by, our kids require this knowledge even more. This is certainly something for the school systems to grapple with–transitioning computers from being “bolt-ons” to the classroom to integral and seamless parts of the curriculum and educational environment. I’ve spent a lot of time in my kids’ classrooms. We ain’t there yet. Nonetheless, the digital age continues to encroach. Teachers routinely assign homework that requires the Internet for research. While one part of me always pines for the students who don’t have computers at home and must complete such assignments in libraries or before or after classes in school labs, that’s another article for another time. Right now I want to talk about what you can do if you do have a computer in the home to help your child learn and gain useful skills that they will need later in life.

A recent article (in the July 2005 edition of Discover magazine) mentioned the findings of a learning sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin, who found that video games are actually beneficial to kids when it comes to learning. Professor James Gee found that beyond the obvious improvements in hand-eye coordination (which, unfortunately, have Pentagon officials salivating over future crops of “point-and-click” warriors), video games provide children with a number of other skills advantages over non-gaming peers including pattern recognition, logic, patience, persistence and “systems thinking.”

Video games, then, just like the rest of life, represent opportunities for our children to learn. The important considerations, however, are what they’re learning and if they’re taking advantage of the lessons. As a parent, you can’t answer those questions unless you are engaged. If you want to know the answers, and even shape the answers, there are some things you will need to do. Because this area is so broad, for now I’ll only discuss PC games, saving console games (PS2, Xbox, GameCube, etc.) for another time.

Make your home computer a learning tool
We have a fair amount of educational software installed on the home computer for the kids to use. Some of it is pretty old. For example, our copy of Jumpstart Kindergarten was originally purchased for our eldest daughter, who’ll be an eighth grader this fall. Nonetheless, it was great for her and my three sons, who followed behind her. Now, I have a rising kindergartener, age 5, and a pending preschooler, age 4, for whom the program is still very much age appropriate. It’s new to them, and there’s absolutely no reason I can think of for buying another program.

The game is interactive, gives them lots of different things to explore, and has a variety of activities (sorting objects by size order, recognizing letter and number sequences, matching shapes, spelling, counting, etc.) to hold their attention and prep them for what they’ll be doing in school. Newer versions abound, and the prices for such software are generally in the $20-$30 range at department stores or places like Best Buy, which carry a fairly wide selection of titles. However, the bargain-conscious and persistent shopper can usually locate previous educational software versions, new or used, for less than $10.

Educational software spans all subject matter taught in schools and then some, with excellent programs available for reading, math, science, social studies, foreign language and even music instruction. Even if you buy from a traditional store, it’s good to check out reviews of the titles online. Amazon.com has customer-written reviews and, even better, specialty sites like SuperKids.com provide detailed expert reviews, rating programs on content and how well they hold the interest of children.

Be sneaky
Eventually, I’ve found, kids get to an age where they don’t want to spend their computer time on overtly educational games, but, as mentioned above, almost all games require some learning. You can increase the educational value of your kids’ playtime by selecting their games wisely, knowing what they are playing, and learning to discover the educational value in what they do.

One of the best games my kids have is called Gearhead Garage, in which the user assumes the role of an auto mechanic (er, technician). You click with the mouse to detach parts of the car (accompanied by a satisfying “kachunk” when removing sheet metal and the sound of a pneumatic drill when removing lug nuts from tires) and drag and drop them to the junkyard or a repair shop. Animated customers appear in a pop-up window, requesting your services and explaining, via text, their problem, e.g., “Some idiot rear-ended me. Can you fix my bumper and right, rear fender?” This strongly and sneakily reinforces reading. I imagine the game is responsible for a lot of first graders recognizing the words “carburetor” and “exhaust,” as well as thoroughly understanding directions like left, right, front and back.

You remove the damaged parts and either repair them yourself for a small charge, or you can buy a brand new part from the parts catalog. The great thing about it is that when the customer comes in, you quote them various prices, which appear in the pop-up “Job” window, and that amount is deducted based on whether you repair the parts, purchase them from the junkyard, or buy them from the catalog (easiest to do but most expensive). When you’re finished, the car rotates, the engine revs, the customer thanks you, and you are credited with whatever remains of the repair cost–your profit.

The jobs increase in difficulty, and eventually, you are disassembling engines with 8-10 pieces that must be removed, repaired and replaced in exact order, with no prompting. You advance from novice to various expert levels as you progress, and eventually gain the ‘right’ to take the money you’ve ‘earned’ to a used car auction, where you can buy broken down and rusty old husks to repair in your shop and resell at a profit. There are all kinds of optional equipment like rims and spoilers that you can put on your car, which has a bearing on whether or not you’ll be able to make money when you sell it at auction.

In addition to giving me four children who now know more about cars than I knew when I was 30, the game teaches the players about spatial reasoning (the car and parts can be rotated in three dimensions); logic (sometimes they don’t say what’s broken, and you have to compare the disassembled engine with the parts catalog to determine what, if anything, is missing); profit (and loss, if you want to be lazy and buy everything from the catalog); and the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. We can drive around town and the kids will point out a car being towed and say, casually, “He needs a new axle and left, rear fender.”

Be opportunistic
By playing the games with my children, and then watching them, I can identify and emphasize these hidden lessons by asking questions that make them think explicitly about their choices in the game. (“Why did you put the expensive tires on her car when she just asked for regular ones? It looks nicer, sure, but you lost $300 on the job.”)

Another great category of games for kids are the simulators, like SimCoaster, Roller Coaster Tycoon and other permutations like Theme Park Tycoon, etc. In these games, the player is given a large amount of land, some money, and the ability to construct rides and attractions in their own park.

The amount of visitors, their satisfaction, and your profit fluctuate based upon how well you think out your burgeoning empire. If all you build are horrifying 500-foot roller coasters with heart-attack inducing vertical drops that lead to 20 consecutive loop-the-loops, the little computerized people will literally puke all over the park and you’ll have to hire a lot more janitors. Conversely, if you only have gentle rides, teenagers won’t come in and spend money.

You have to plan your refreshment stands so that there are available restrooms and trashcans. All of this determines whether you attain certain goals, like attracting X number of visitors, or having a satisfaction rating over 80 percent. And while I can say that it is hilarious to give sodas away for free in the summer and then charge a $10 entrance fee to go to the bathrooms, cause and effect is strongly enforced and your patrons will grumble, leave and tell other little computer people never to visit your park. Again, the game-play is fun, but it also reinforces reading, math and logic skills, and goes above and beyond the amount of financial education that most kids will receive in school or at home. Best of all, the lessons don’t stay confined to the computer. When visiting a real theme park or zoo, the kids will point out, on their own, how the sequence of attractions could have been laid out more efficiently to improve the flow of traffic or make better use of the land.

Keep it real
Despite the many advantages that the computer offers, it should not replace real-world experiences and activities. In our home, the computer and the other video games, even the overtly educational ones, are considered regulated privileges (with six kids and two computers, it really couldn’t be otherwise). If they are not doing homework, my kids are usually kicked off the computer after an hour or so. And if it’s a nice day, they get kicked out of the house, where they can pretend that they are fixing cars or racing or blasting each other with energy beams coming out of their fingers and whatnot.

Sometimes, their activities come full circle. My 11-year-old son is the neighborhood bike-fixer. He mentioned to me that he wanted to start charging for his services. I took the opportunity to have him list the various services he performed and how much he thought he could charge. Then I showed him how to enter that into a spreadsheet, and took it further by explaining how to create formulas to calculate the value of his time, and a $3 minimum fee for the simplest repairs. Not that I want him to become a little mercenary or anything, but he is clearly understanding economics on a basic level and thinking further about integrating that knowledge with his creative/mechanical bent. I’m pretty sure that at least some of that awareness has been augmented by games he’s played and, more importantly, discussions we’ve had regarding those games.

All of this places the concept of the computer in context. Yes, it can be very entertaining, but it is, first and foremost, a tool. Even though I make my living “messing with computers,” I really did not feel comfortable at all with them until well into my 20s. Even still, I work on very large systems, completely different from household PCs. However, without using any specialized knowledge, but just by playing with my children, talking to and learning from them, they are all far more advanced than I was at their ages. And it is my hope that this small thing will help open even more doors for them than were open for me.