Dec. 5, 2011 at 1:58 AM ET
According to a recent study from the NPD Group market research company, 91 percent of kids in the U.S. between the ages of two and 17 are now gamers. But here is the surprising bit: The fastest growing group of young video game players is the toddler set — between two and five years old.
While some parents worry about whether playing video games is good for young children, I've found that gaming — when properly supervised and balanced with other activities — can be a great pastime not only for kids but for parents' relationship with their kids. Playing video games with your child is an absolute blast! It's a fun way to bond with your kid, plus it's a superb way to teach children some teamwork and puzzle-solving skills without ever letting on that you're actually, you know, teaching.
It just so happens that I have my own young gamer — my almost-five-year-old son Oz. He's been helping me test out some of the latest video games in an effort to find titles that are enjoyable and appropriate for kids four to 10. What you'll find below is a look at the pros and cons of seven games that are not only easy for young players to jump into, but are great for parents and kids to play together.
Kirby's Return to Dreamland – Wii - $50
Pros: Learning how to use video game controllers can be difficult for the youngest players, but this laid-back title — starring Nintendo's famous pink protagonist — is a fun, easy way to teach young hands to work buttons and a directional pad. The game is also downright adorable and relatively non-threatening for little players just trying to get the swing of things.
"Return to Dreamland" can be played by up to four people at a time which makes it a fantastic all-family game night option. Playing as Kirby and his pals, you and your children will need to use teamwork and cooperation as you to explore bright, colorful worlds and try to find the pieces of a lost spaceship that crash-landed on Kirby's planet, while fending off a host of relatively non-threatening foes in the process.
For this game, your child will turn Nintendo's Wii Remote controller on its side and use it as a traditional controller. And since this is a two-dimensional side-scrolling game, figuring out how to run, jump and fly the characters around the screen is fairly easy for kids to do. Meanwhile, the difficulty level ramps up veeery slowly, which means your child (and therefore you) won't get frustrated.
My son loves watching Kirby suck up his enemies to absorb their powers and is wowed by Kirby's new eye-popping, screen-filling Super Abilities. And when the going does get a bit tough, he can have his character jump onto my character's back for a piggy-back ride past the rough patches.
(It's worth noting that another excellent Kirby game to consider playing with young kids is last year's superb Wii game "Kirby's Epic Yarn.")
Cons: There really isn't much of a downside to this game other than the fact that seasoned, grown-up gamers familiar with Kirby's history may find this particular installment a bit too easy. But then again, this isn't about us is it?
Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster - Xbox 360 (Kinect required) - $50
Pros: "Once Upon A Monster" offers everything a conscientious parent wants from a video game — non-violent gameplay that both activates the body and the mind. It also offers that delightful Sesame Street sensibility and, well, Elmo ... lots and lots of Elmo along with his adorable monster pals.
With the Kinect motion controller reading your child's body movements, this game acts as a kind of interactive story book throughout which your child meets various colorful characters and tries to help them solve the problems they're facing.
To cheer up an unhappy monster, your child will make music by flapping their hands to bang on virtual drums. To help clean up a flower creature's garden, they'll hurl balls of virtual garbage into virtual garbage cans (as if tossing basketballs). And since the game features easy drop-in/drop-out cooperative play, mom and dad can jump into the action at any time.
Cons: The Kinect controller is often pitched as the perfect device for allowing young children to interact with games and virtual environments. After all, there's no controller to hold in tiny hands and no buttons or sticks to struggle with. And yet, my son ran into more controller-related frustrations with this game than any other on this list.
The thing is, little kids have a hard time standing in one place. They jump and flail their arms when they're relaxing. "Once Upon a Monster" asks kids to perform some pretty specific movements but frequently seemed to have a hard time reading my son when he performed them.
Be sure to take the time to make sure the Kinect is perfectly calibrated to your child's size (the game will walk you through the process). Meanwhile, urge your wiggle-worm to hold still a bit and try to focus on the specific gestures they need to execute to interact with the game. It may take some practice and some patience but the little whippersnappers learn very quickly.
Kinect Disneyland Adventures - Xbox 360 (Kinect required) - $50
Pros: Imagine going to Disneyland — but a Disneyland without all the crowds and lines and cost ... not to mention the parental misery created by all three.
Welcome to a little game called "Kinect Disneyland Adventures." Sure, the Disneyland you'll find here is merely a digital recreation. But it is a pretty impressive digital recreation and one that you and your child can jump into and explore at your own pace.
Almost all of the Disneyland grounds have been recreated within this game and are ready to explore. With the Kinect camera reading your child's body motions, your kid makes an avatar to look like him or herself and then steers that avatar around the Disneyland grounds by pointing where she would like to go. She can run up to Mickey and give him a high five or give Snow White a hug. And these characters will send your child on various quests that will have them exploring the famed park.
Meanwhile, the rides are where the gaming action comes in. Head over to Peter Pan's Flight, where you and your child can fly through the air collecting coins or sword fight with Captain Hook. Step into the Matterhorn where you'll race bobsleds or ski down snowy hills.
The $50 lifetime ticket for you and your family to enter this virtual park will seem downright cheap compared to the hundreds of dollars a trip to the real Happiest Place on Earth will run you.
Cons: If you're not a fan of the Disney marketing machine, then this game is not for you.
Rayman: Origins - PlayStation 3; Xbox 360; Wii - $50 to $60
Pros: One of the great joys of parenting is hearing your children laugh. And if you want to enjoy the sounds of your young gamer guffawing uproariously, then grab "Rayman: Origins."
Zany, crazy and hilarious not to mention utterly creative, "Rayman: Origins" is not only a delightful platforming game for up to four players, it is a gorgeous work of animated art.
My husband, son and I have been having an absolute blast playing this game together. Here Rayman and his friends have awoken a cranky granny and her minions with their snoring. And now you must run, jump, swing and fly through one surreal level after another, each filled with a colorful host of outlandish baddies to beat. My son unleashed the most splendid, unstoppable peals of laughter when we encountered the chicken-headed boss pictured above.
Kids will love this game because it is silly in all the best ways. Adults will love this game because each level is a cleverly constructed work of gaming art. (See In-Game editor Todd Kenreck's full video review at right.)
Cons: This game will grow more demanding for the very youngest players far more quickly than something like "Kirby's Return to Dreamland" and will have them facing down more intense challenges than some young kids may be ready for. But it's worth noting that, if a child fails to get past a particularly difficult part in the game while playing with a parent or older sibling, he or she will find his character popped into a bubble that floats safely along until another player pops him out to rejoin the action at a more manageable point.
Medieval Moves: Deadmund's Quest - PlayStation 3 (Move controls required) - $40
Pros: My son loves both skeletons and swashbuckling tales of sword fighting, so perhaps it's no wonder he's a huge fan of "Medieval Moves." This game puts young players in the role of the boy Prince Edmund who finds himself transformed into a skeleton and thrust into a battle against a nefarious sorcerer and his army of undead.
Skeletons? Army of undead? Well, yes. "Deadmund's Quest" may sound scary but it is cartoony as can be. The story of Prince Edmund-turned-Prince Deadmund is presented in comic-book-style cut scenes and the bad guys are more goofy than they are blood-curdling. Meanwhile, this is an "on rails" game, which means your child doesn't have to worry about maneuvering Deadmund around this world. Instead, the hero is whisked through the medieval-themed environments almost as if on a roller-coaster ride. All your young player has to do is focus on knocking out the bad guys.
Since this game uses the PlayStation 3's Move motion controllers, kids get to do battle with a host of skeletons by swinging the orb-topped wand controller like a sword, or drawing it out like they would a bow and arrow. And the Move controls here work superbly. They are highly responsive and my son found the gestures and button presses easy to get the hang of.
The Move controls really pull young players right into what is nothing short of a thrilling adventure. And the multiplayer modes mean that we parents can jump in and try our own sword-swinging, arrow-shooting skills alongside our young companions.
Cons: Each youngster is different and you should consider whether doing battle with skeletons — no matter how bloodless and cartoony those battles are — is something that will thrill your child ... or scare 'em. This game may be most appropriate for slightly older kids (think seven to 10).
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure - Xbox 360; PlayStation 3; Wii; Nintendo 3DS - $70
Pros: This title blends two things that kids love into one bright, enjoyable package. That is, it combines real-world toys with video gaming.
The starter pack comes with the game disc, three Skylander figurines — Spyro, Trigger Happy and Gill Grunt — and a plastic Portal of Power peripheral that you plug into the game console. Fire up the game disc and then pop an action figure onto the Portal of Power and suddenly an animated version of that action figure appears inside the game.
You and your child will take these characters on a colorful, humor-filled quest to save the Skylander world from the evil powers of Kaos. Each of the different action figures has unique powers and abilities and your child will need to think about how to best use these unique strengths to conquer the challenges and puzzles they face.
It really is pretty neat to swap these toys on and off the portal and see them pop into and out of the video game on the fly. Meanwhile, the more your child plays the game with a certain character, the more that character is upgraded with additional powers and abilities. And here's another cool bit: All those upgrades are uploaded to an RF chip in the matching action figure. What that means is, your kid can take their own action figures over to a friend's house and, even if that friend has the game on a different kind of game console, your child can pop their figurines onto their friend's Portal of Power and play the game with all their own characters' unique upgrades and customizations intact.
Cons: The $70 price tag for the starter kit is steep to begin with, but you may end up spending even more money than that. While the "Skylanders" game can be won with just the three initial characters, there are actually 32 Skylander figurines in all to collect (i.e. buy for around $8 a piece) and these additional characters unlock additional challenges and additional areas within the game.
My son was perfectly happy with the initial three action figures, but that doesn't mean every kid will feel the same. The more your child delves into this "Skylanders" adventure, the more you may hear them beg "I want more."
Fruit Ninja Kinect - Xbox 360 (Kinect required) - $10 download via Xbox Live
Pros: I cannot tell you the joy that "Fruit Ninja Kinect" has brought to our household ... and to our son's bedtime routine. Simply put: There is no better way to wear out your kid to the point that he or she has no strength left to fight sleep.
"Fruit Ninja Kinect" (which I reviewed in full here) takes the gameplay found in the hit smartphone/tablet game and puts it up on your TV via Xbox Live and Kinect. Rather than swiping your finger across a touchscreen to slash fruit that's tossed up into the air, the Kinect camera keeps track of your body movements as you swing your arms and legs to cut down pineapple, kiwi, bananas and other nefarious foods.
This game was not made specifically for children, but it certainly brings out the child in everyone who plays it. More importantly: It's easy for children to jump into and I can promise you, their enthusiasm for the fruit-slashing ninja arts is a joy to behold.
The multiplayer mode is especially enjoyable to play with young kids. Sure, you can play it competitively, but there's also a cooperative mode that allows you to work together as you slash your way to a joint high score. And there's nothing like conquering evil fruit to bring you closer to your adorable rugrat.
Cons: The menu screens are very sensitive to motion and can be difficult for wiggly children to navigate, so you might need to help them get things started. Meanwhile, the difference in an adult's height and a small child's height can make it so the Kinect camera has a difficult time fully reading both players' movements. I suggest you have Kinect calibrate to your child (giving them the best game experience) and then play on your knees beside them.
Also be absolutely sure you give each other enough room when you play together — otherwise, with all those flailing arms, someone is liable to get a karate chop to the nose.
For more game news and holiday buying guidance, check out:
Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+. And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page right here.