What if all they want to do is play video games?

This is a guest post from Sheila Baranoski. She writes a blog about unschooling and she writes fiction for kids.

“Easy for you to say unschooling works,” someone told me. “Your kids are interested in academic things. You don’t know my kids. If I unschooled, all my kids would do is play video games all day.”

I could spin unschooling two ways. I could tell you that before my son decided to learn Japanese, he read about long-term and short-term memory, and came up with a plan based on his research. I could tell you how my teenage boys have been to three different symphonies, and enjoyed them all. I could tell you how well they work in the family business.

Or I could tell you all they want to do is play video games.

Both versions of the story would be true. Because they are such avid video game players, they have pursued interests that came from their passion in video games, but their core passion remains video games.

Because of the endless hours of video game playing, they naturally became immersed in Japanese culture because that’s where Nintendo headquarters is. That led to their interest in manga and anime. They have Twitter accounts so that they can follow things about video games, and sometimes along the way, the video gamers they follow share an interesting article about something else. They listen to podcasts about video games, which, as podcasts often do, sometimes talk off-topic.

Because of their love of Japan, I got them each a subscription to Japan crate for their birthdays, where they get a box of Japanese goodies each month.

The symphonies I mentioned? Video game themed. Music from the Zelda video games with footage from the games playing behind the orchestra. One conductor used the Wind Waker baton.

My sons took guitar lessons for awhile, and one of them took piano and trumpet lessons as well. Their sole reason for learning new instruments was to play Zelda songs.

The reason one of them took horseback riding lessons was so he could ride a horse just like Link. We found the most awesome teacher in the world, who was even willing to put the cones he was supposed to ride around in the shape of the TriForce. Of course, we had to sew our own costume so he could look like Link while he rode.

Then we made our own shields out of foam board. Then we decided to try making wooden shields with a jigsaw. We made rupee bags (rupees are the currency in the Zelda games). We hiked through the woods with our shields once, going on an adventure just like Link.

I took them to Pax East in Boston, which is a huge video game conference. While there, they played indie games before they went on the market, heard a panel of video game developers talk about their careers, and heard one of their favorite podcasts live. Also, they had their first Pho from a Vietnamese restaurant and fish and chips from a British restaurant.

Some of the very first words they read were video game-related (save, continue), and some of their earliest reading was video game guides.

They’ve always enjoyed making up their own levels in games, from the time they were little and played Freddi Fish. They spent days making elaborate Lego versions of Mario Party games, complete with their own mini-games. This inspired them to work on an idea for a game they wanted to make and sell as an app, which led them to learning some programming. They didn’t follow through on that to completion, at least not yet. Who knows what the future holds.

When one of them was building a giant spider on Minecraft, he did a lot of research on spiders. When I needed help figuring out Dropbox, they were able to easily help me, because they’d used it for Minecraft.

Sure, they work hard selling things in our family business. So they can buy video games and add to their growing amiibo collection.

I never said we had to supplement their video game playing with academic things, or told them that they had to “learn something” today. I trusted that they were learning all the time, and that their interests would take them wherever they needed to go.

I paid attention and talked to them, and when they asked a question, I answered or looked it up if I didn’t know. I Googled lots of things for them when they were little, and looked a lot of things up on YouTube for them. When someone said, “I wish I could ride a horse like Link” I considered how we might be able to make that happen, and if they were interested in my ideas, we did them.

And some days, a lot of days actually, all they did was play video games.

19 replies
  1. Sarah Pierzchala
    Sarah Pierzchala says:

    Ha–I thought we were the only ones who had played Freddi Fish!
    Actually, this narrative is pretty similar to our family’s experience in other ways, too, although for us the Ghibli films were the gateway drug to Japan (so now we are of course heavily immersed in Ni No Kuni).
    My kids discovered the “Extra Credits” videos when they were researching game design, and now they are watching all of the series on history…a very painless and free curriculum for me!
    And my reading/writing delayed 9-year-old is coding on Khan Academy, because…games.

  2. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    I love reading about the many different ways Unschooling parents support, encourage and respect their child’s (or children’s) value pursuit. Thank you for sharing, Ms. Baranoski

  3. MBL
    MBL says:

    Very nice!

    If you look at the photo from a distance and squint, the controller looks like a black anime cat with a curved tail.

    • SHASTA Fox
      SHASTA Fox says:

      It’s a shield device made by Nvidia, which is primarily a graphic chip design company. And yep, they hire some people to sit around and play games all day. They are the young 20 somethings, driving the BMWs.

  4. Ana
    Ana says:

    It sounds like most unschoolers can afford video games and once they do their kids’ education benefitis from these games. But what about all the people who can’t afford them? Or the private horse riding lessons? I live in Mexico and this unschooling lifestyle sounds wonderful but completely unattainable.

    • Jennifer Jo
      Jennifer Jo says:

      Video games aren’t a requirement of unschooling, nor is any other particular purchase-able item. Unschooling is simply living your life with the things and opportunities you do have.

      Our kids play zero video games and have no hand-held devices (except for one half-broken Kindle). My 16-year-old was just granted permission to purchase a computer…with his own money.

      My daughter takes riding lessons, but she works at the farm to pay for them herself.

      We have four children and we budget 100 dollars a month for “education.” This covers piano and choir lessons, books, gymnastics, swimming lessons, etc.

      Our options are limited; our life is rich.

  5. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    We’re in our seventh year of homeschooling, and we unschooled last year and the year before. Your sons sound very much like my daughter, although her fascination is with manga and anime and her interests have developed around that. On the other hand, my son is the one who loves video games, and I can honestly tell you that he has not ever followed any rabbit trail because of his games. He literally does want to JUST play video games. I tried so hard to pay attention to what he was doing and ask him if he’d like to try things related to his gaming, and the answer was always no. It really does depend on the kid. They don’t all start doing amazing things out of this one interest. It was because of this that we started doing some structured homeschooling again this year. We’re still very relaxed about education, and, at 15, his work usually takes only about an hour. What does he do with his free time now- which is still most of the time? Play video games and, still, no new interests have stemmed from it.

    • Charmaine Kaumeyer
      Charmaine Kaumeyer says:

      My 16-year-old is the same way. One of the things I looked forward to in our homeschooling journey was allowing my boys to delve into whatever interests them. He is a bright young man and a good student but he has no interests outside video games. None. I have made suggestions. I have let him know we will help him pursue WHATEVER he’s interested in. Nada. So I choose his courses of study for him and I am sad. He has opportunities I never had and he is squandering them!

      • Charmaine Kaumeyer
        Charmaine Kaumeyer says:

        BTW, we have always homeschooled. Anybody out there with a young adult who was an unmotivated teen who can give me some encouragement?

  6. Mh
    Mh says:

    Hang in there.

    For every year they were in compulsory school, allow 1-3 years for them to “find themselves”.

    • Maria
      Maria says:

      The idea behind giving some time for each year of schooling is that of deschooling. Deschooling is necessary for successful unschooling. From long-time unschoolers I have generally heard the rule of thumb a month for every year of schooling. But every child is different.

      Deschooling is far more needed for parents than children, however.

      • Maria
        Maria says:

        I also wanted to add that there is also a need for deschooling after having been schooled at home.

        For those interested further in this concept Google ‘Sandra Dodd Deschooling’ for a variety of writers and experiences on the topic.

  7. Anna
    Anna says:

    I am glad this works for some families. However, successful unschoolers will not acknowledge that it simply *does not* work for every family. And it isn’t the parents’ fault. Some kids will not *ever* naturally take an interest in other things through playing video games. My sons played video games for years and became increasingly lazier and less motivated to do anything else. I finally had to take one graduated-from-high-school son’s video gaming away so he’d get off his tail and do something with his life.

    Parents should bear in mind that saying all kids will thrive and produce something with their lives by unschooling, is like insisting that all kids will thrive and do well at baseball. Some will, and others won’t. It’s important to realize this, so each parent can feel free to say yes or no to unschooling, and choose what really works for them. I say this because many unschoolers can be quite dogmatic.

  8. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    There’s a lot of talk on this website about video games but what about tv. My daughter would watch Disney channel all day.

  9. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Of course there are ways “video games” can work…

    But I maintain for the vast majority of families….it’s playing with fire.

    EVERY SINGLE client of mine who has problems has been overrun with video games (Minecraft) and television.

  10. Shannon
    Shannon says:

    Ok this is weird. Why be dogmatic about what OTHERS do? I think the article on this site on why not to have kids is not only silly but wrong. Much research repeated shows parents unhappier with more than one kid when kids are young but much happier when kids are older duh.
    Yes having kids does bring joy for most but the early years can be tough. Duh
    If one parent wants to unschool great. If another one doesn’t great too. I’ve never seen anyone replicate school at home though I’ve seen many try as if what they want IS school just better than what’s offered. So I see some parents with tutors and coops and clearly they just want a better school they don’t Have but most parents are unschoolers because they don’t do more than 1-2 hours of work tops and many do less and they fill up the rest of the day with other things. I don’t think TV or games are bad and homeschooling parents deserve a break. So do kids. When kids seem glazed I make them take a break. That works well for us. TV games are addictive but so what. So is chocolate and other people and musical passion and good things. My whole gen watched five hours of daily TV and survived. Now it’s games. Only a small fraction of kids are truly addicted. Parents follow your hearts and do what YOU think is best! Be encouraged by others and their success. And remember all the poorer people who became stars. Yes rich parents are advantaged but to a point. Studies have shown no extra advantage for the super wealthy and people with poor work ethics don’t become Titans. Love to all the homeschoolers!

  11. Terrence Brennan
    Terrence Brennan says:

    My kids developed an interest in heroin. It’s taught them valuable real life lessons about economics and the legal system. I’m so pleased that they have found their passion! Recently, they’ve explored prostitution in order to obtain more heroin. What an organic lesson in entrepreneurship!

    Give me a break guys. Be parents!

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