How to encourage children to learn different skills online

Online safety expert Dr Elizabeth Milovidov and video gaming expert Andy Robertson share their tips for encouraging children to build skills using their devices to help balance screen time.

Help kids build skills with their devices

Dr Elizabeth Milovidov, JD

Law Professor and Digital Parenting Expert
Expert Website

If offered the choice between hanging out and doing nothing or developing additional skills over a school break, most children would probably choose to hang out. I would encourage parents/carers to present online skill development as a fun and entertaining alternative by mixing skill development with known and unknown interests.

But first, what are some examples of online skills? Online skills range from the very popular (coding, languages, photoshop, photography, game design, app design) to the very necessary (communicating, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, typing) to the very digital sounding (website design, ethical hacking, programming) and more. Whatever online skills you try should be related to something that your child already loves or that they are interested in trying out using this 3 easy steps:

1. Do your research – create a list of activities that your child loves (known interests) and a list of activities that your child has never tried but might be interested in (unknown interests). Then brainstorm on online skill related to both lists that are child-friendly, age-appropriate courses and training. Ask other parent/carers, friends and family members for ideas and recommendations on camps, courses or training.

2. Co-design with your child – now that you have some idea of the possibilities, sit down with your child and co-create an activity plan. Include downtime, offline time, family time, outside time, activity time, etc. Invite your child to do some online research as well (increasing those online research skills already). If your child loves arts, crafts, science, music or film, look for online activities in those fields. Also look to museums and family centres for their online offerings.

3. Agree, test and revise – try out the activity over the weekend by watching intro videos, reading reviews and just playing. Then test your activity plan over a school break and be prepared to revise and update.

Using the 3 steps above, you really can create a plan that encourages your child to get online, learn something new and manage some of that school break “empty” time.

Andy Robertson

Freelance Family Technology Expert
Expert Website

Many key online skills are part of modern video games. However, parents may worry that encouraging this can open the door to more screen time.

The best approach is to engage with your child about the games they are currently playing. Watch them play, and talk to them about what they are doing or interested in. This, along with a bit of research, means you can then find experiences that double-down on the coding and content creation behind their favourite games, which they may not find themselves.

For example, if your child loves Fortnite, you can encourage the building and map creation aspect of the game. Or, using a tool like Gaming Database, you can find similar games that may pique their interest.

These Game Lists pages offer a number of great suggestions such as:

  • Game Builder Garage: “[this game] enables anyone to make video games. Unlike other game makers, this offers in-depth lessons to take you from the basics to advanced techniques. The cute Nodon characters that power the visual drag-and-drop construction, enable players of any age to make and share their own experiences on the Switch.”
  • Hidden Through Time: “It’s an ideal game for young players with colourful hand-drawn visuals and without a strict time limit. From missing dinosaur eggs in the stone age, to a king’s crown in medieval times, can you find them all? Discover, create and share worlds with your own hidden treasures in Hidden Through Time!”
  • Dreams: “Anyone can learn how to create their own video games, music, animations and art in Dreams. Everything is controlled with accessible menus and interactions via the PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5 controller. This makes it easy to dive in and create something simple. Then, as skill and imagination grow over time players can take their creativity in any direction that they wish to make highly detailed and nuanced experiences: quirky art, professional-looking games, original music, detailed sculptures. These can then be shared online or just kept for the family.”

Getting involved in your child’s gaming in this way not only steers them toward some great experiences that they may not discover for themselves but sets them up for a balanced and varied diet of gaming.

Learning the skill of knowing when to stop is really powerful if it becomes part of their online experience. But also, not just playing what everyone else is playing can broaden their horizons and maybe even lead to a career.