When my son was in elementary school, my wife and I were concerned about his exposure to video games and steered him clear of them for several years. But when we noticed he was mesmerized by a store display of a popular math learning game, we decided this was the right time to gift our son the apple of his eyes. Fast forward to the present, our son just aced his first two college calculus courses.

While I have no definitive evidence to link our son’s early exposure to a math learning game and his current college success, there is a growing body of research which suggests a strong connection:

When your child has a disability, however, using digital learning games may have several challenges. What if your child has trouble hearing the game dialogue, or seeing what is on the screen? What if your child has trouble interacting with the game due to issues with fine motor skills? What if your child has a reading related disability like dyslexia, or perhaps a developmental disorder like autism?

PBS KIDS has something for everyone in the math game Railway Hero, based on the long-running Cyberchase series. In the game, children help the CyberSquad repair the Information SuperRailway after the villain Hacker has stolen pieces of it, all while reinforcing math skills.

Railway Hero is designed to be accessible to children of nearly all abilities, so whether or not you have a child with a disability, your child can receive similar learning benefits. Here are a few tips on how to ensure your child has a positive learning experience while playing.

Help your child personalize the game user environment

While this is especially true if your child has special needs, you may find that letting your child set things the way they want may help them be better engaged in the game and enhance the learning value. Most kids tend to rush into a digital game and get right into playing. But one of the real treasures of Railway Hero is the setup screen. This is where you can help your child set things like the colors used, the contrast, text size, audio levels and whether audio descriptions and captions are used. Explore different settings to discover what works best for your child.

Try using both captions and audio descriptions

Research has shown that young children who are learning to read, English language learners, and struggling readers are able to significantly improve their reading skills when they watch media content with captions turned on. And while audio description is commonly thought of as a tool for the visually impaired, research on the potential benefits of audio description point to its value for sighted learners as well. Even though you may think your child doesn’t really need these settings, you may actually increase the learning value of Railway Hero by turning them both on!

Wait for the instructions

With any new game, kids of all abilities will experience less frustration if they take the time to read the instructions. While most things about Railway Hero are intuitive, encourage your child to watch the video introduction and listen for the brief audio directions that begin each level and provide important clues for gameplay.

Try it mouse-free

Many young children have difficulty with fine motor control — using the little muscles in their hands — and find traditional “drag and drop” interactions frustrating. Railway Hero offers alternatives. If your child prefers using a tablet or phone, simply tapping on a track length will click it into place. A simple click of the mouse will do the same. Or, kids can avoid the mouse altogether by using keyboard controls like the tab, enter and space keys.  

Enhance the math learning experience

In addition to the techniques mentioned above, here are a couple of ideas on how to get even more math learning potential while your child plays:

  • Add it up differently. Railway Hero reinforces addition skills. The first few levels are fairly easy, but it isn’t long before kids may be presented with multiple correct ways of repairing a gap of missing track pieces. Encourage higher-level math thinking by prompting your child to find different possible combinations of track lengths to fill a gap. For instance, if there is a gap of five spaces, encourage your child to think of all available combinations that will work to repair it, like two tracks plus three or one track plus four.
  • Explore adding strategies. Help your child discover a variety of adding strategies to come up with the correct lengths. The doubling strategy works well in lower levels of the game. If the gap length is eight, help your child look for two track pieces of four. Another adding strategy is “plus one.” If a length of seven is needed, have your child think of one less than seven and see if they can find a length of six and a length of one. A strategy for filling larger gaps might be to look for the largest available length and figure out what smaller length can go with it to get the desired number. Encourage your child to think out loud and try different approaches.

Math is all about the way we view the world. Help your child learn the love of math by watching episodes and playing more games on the Cyberchase website. One day your child’s college calculus teacher may thank you!

About Steve Noble

Steve Noble is a father of four “grown up” kids, and grandfather of four…with more likely to come. He has spent several years researching ways to make mathematics accessible to children with disabilities and serves as Mathematics and Science Specialist for Bridge Multimedia.

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