I’m dating myself here, but during my childhood video games weren’t anymore violent than a shoot out in Atari’s Outlaw. In contrast, many games today contain gore, sexual content, and violence that make an R-rated movie seem tame.

These days parents need to navigate a rating system that includes categories such as Teen (13+), Mature (17+), and Adult (18+) to ensure kids aren’t being exposed to video games that contain content that isn’t age appropriate for them. It really is important for parents to be aware of the content in the video games that kids are playing!

I have grade school-aged kids at home who are infatuated with video games. So my wife and I have to be vigilant about the types of games they play to avoid having them immersed in bad language and exposed to situations that really aren’t appropriate for their age. There are a number of things you can do as a parent to check out video games before letting children play them.

VIDEO GAME APPROVAL CHECKLIST

Ratings. As I mentioned earlier, just like the movie industry, video games are also rated for age appropriateness through the Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB).  For kids ages 6 to 12, in most cases parents will want to stick with an E rating, which means the video game is suitable for everyone with no age restrictions. This can be somewhat confusing though because there is also an E[10+] rating that means a game should be suitable for all ages, but there may be some content in it where parents may want to check it out before letting kids under 10. This asterisk is normally due to rude humor or mild violence.  It is like a PG movie rating.

For the most part, games with an  E or E[10+] rating are what you want to see grade school-aged kids playing. If kids are usually allowed to see PG movies, but are also under 10, an E[10+] game may be just fine.  My kids are 9, but I often let them play E[10+] games that I’ve checked out in advance. That being said, parents really should be wary of the multitude of M [Mature] and A [Adult Only] games out there that contain graphic content unsuitable for their grade school-aged kids.

Trailers. Most video game publishers have marketing campaigns that include video trailers. It is normally very easy to find a trailer for almost any game on YouTube or other online sources. Parents should be able to get a good impression from watching these trailers if there is content within games they find objectionable for their kids.

Reviews. Take time to read online reviews of video games. The Toy Insider features a number of video games targeted toward kids ages 6 to 8. Common Sense Media also provides great reviews of video games to help parents evaluate them.  A Google search is sure to dig up a number of reviews for almost any game from sites such as Gamespot and IGN, or a variety of bloggers.

Most games will also have their own website that provides an overview description of it, screen shots of game play, and a trailer video. Often times the websites for video games consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation will also have a page dedicated to each game that provides information such as the ESRB rating and gameplay highlights.

Monitoring. Don’t let kids play video games in isolation. Place video game consoles in central areas of your home, such a family room instead of in bedrooms. Offering to play with your kids from time to time provides a great understanding of what they are playing, can be fun to do, and makes for some great family bonding time.

Here are some of my family’s favorite video game options for our grade school aged kids:

AMAZON FREETIME UNLIMITED

My kids both have subscriptions to Amazon FreeTime Unlimited on Kindle Fire tablets. Designed for kids ages 3 to 12, this service fosters a kid-friendly environment where display ads, in-app purchases, the internet, and social media are blocked, but kids can access a selection of more than 13,000 age appropriate digital books, educational apps, TV shows, movies, and video games. Parents can customize content to cater specifically to three different age ranges—3 to 5, 6 to 8, or 9 to 12.

Parents can also block video games and movies until kids complete a designated amount of reading time, limit the total daily amount of screen time on the device, and set morning activation time and bedtime deactivation. Our tablets are set so that the kids can’t turn them on before school and have to do 30 minutes of reading on the tablet before they play games or watch videos for a half hour. Then, they deactivate at 8 p.m. until the next day. Amazon Freetime Unlimited lets my kids have some freedom exploring and enjoying fun and educational aspects of today’s technology that fit their individual interests, while providing parental protections.

NINTENDO

Parents normally can’t go wrong with Nintendo, which has made itself a trusted provider of great video games for grade school-aged kids. These games tend to feature outlandish cartoon characters and settings with a focus on agility, skill, puzzle solving, sports and role playing rather than the fighting, shooting and other types of violence that are prevalent in many of today’s video games.

Nintendo DS devices provide a nice selection of games that are a good fit for younger gamers. My kids and their friends at school are all crazy about Pokémon, and the Nintendo DS family features a number of games based on the popular trading card game. There are also a number of Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda-themed games available that kids will love. Plus, splurging on the Nintendo 3DS provides some impressive 3-D effects without the need to wear special glasses to enjoy them.

The Nintendo Switch is great because kids can play at home by hooking it up to a TV or use it as a handheld device on the go. Mario Kart and Super Mario Odyssey are two great games available on Nintendo Switch that are perfect for grade school aged-kids—and Mom and Dad will love them too!

LEGO

Our whole family enjoys playing LEGO-themed video games together because of their whimsical and wacky vibe. They feature toy figures for characters and building bricks for backdrops even when there is semi-violent content, such as ninjas fighting in The LEGO Ninjago Movie game or Avengers battling bad guys in LEGO Marvel Super Heroes Neither features very intense violence, and is more goofy than gory. These games also feature problem-solving and puzzles that get kids thinking.


I love LEGO Dimensions because it incorporates a lot of elements from TV shows and movies that were popular when I was a kid. We’ll have a family fun night where we watch a classic movie from my childhood, then play its corresponding LEGO Dimensions expansion pack together.  We’ve done this with Beetlejuice, E.T., Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and Goonies. This video game does a wonderful job of letting you play out LEGO adventures based on these movies.

In LEGO Worlds, players explore open-world landscapes inspired by LEGO sets as they embark on a quest to become a Master Builder. For example, as an astronaut players explore a galaxy of fantastical planets that contain inhabitants and landscapes made up entirely of LEGO mini-figures and bricks. This game lets players shape both the environment around them and the scope of their adventures. Your own creativity and imagination are often times the only limitation to the extent of the adventures you can engage in and creations that can be built within the game. LEGO Worlds is one of my kids favorite video games!

MINECRAFT

This game is a great way to get interested in STEM concepts while having fun learning. Stranded in a randomly generated wilderness setting, players must utilize the available natural resources to construct tools and buildings in order to survive and thrive in their environment. Again, the only limit is a player’s imagination!

Players utilize math and engineering, as well as creativity and problem-solving, to overcome obstacles and challenges. Kids also use science and technology in different ways, such as using a stone to create circuits. Plus there are opportunities to learn about coding through delving into the game’s open programming.  To get ahead in Minecraft, players must learn useful real life skills, but aren’t too complicated to learn at a grade school age. Minecraft lets kids turn their ideas into “virtual reality.”

ZOO TYCOON

One of my family’s favorite activities is a trip to the zoo.  So, we love building our own zoos with Zoo Tycoon. You can select from around 200 types of animals to include in your zoo and design their habitats. In addition to learning about animals, the game has a business mode where players have to deal with revenue and expenses as well as keeping both the creatures and the visitors happy to be successful.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Show kids how video games used to be played with Atari Flashback, which lets you play original Atari console games from the ’70s and ’80s—such as Outlaw, Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, Pitfall, River Raid, and Space Invaders. There are two varieties of Atari Flashback, one that resembles the classic Atari console with joystick controllers that plug directly into a TV to play and the other is a portable version with a built-in screen and control pad.

When I was in grade school arcades were the place to hang out with friends. Basic Fun pays tribute to those days with their Mini Arcade Games. Kids can play can play arcade classics from the ’80s including Frogger, Pac-Man, and Q-Bert with these portable games.

While video games can be a whole lot of fun, remember it is important to keep screen time in check. Fellow Toy Insider Parents Panelist James Zahn shared his thoughts about managing kids screen time as well. The right type of video games really can be beneficial in helping grade school-aged kids develop hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, STEM knowledge, and self-confidence, but it is also important to make sure kids are getting plenty of exercise and play time away from video screens in their lives as well.