“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –Fred Rogers
Being a kid was great, wasn’t it? We got to spend our days doing the one thing we loved more than anything in the world, which was also one of the things we needed most to grow: PLAY. Mister Rogers was right, “Play is really the work of childhood.”
Well, as it turns out, our brains develop through play. Without play, we would not become whole people. We’d be missing connections in our brains; our lives would be irrevocably disjointed by a childhood void of play.
I loved my childhood. I can see the direct connection between how I spent my time as a kid and the interests, hobbies, career path, and lifestyle I love today. I lived in my imagination. I created other worlds and characters out of nothing. I spent days on end recreating The Lion King with the kids in the neighborhood, free of any embarrassment and time constraints (other than dinner and bedtime). And I read books. Lots of them. All the time.
I grew up to love writing and expressing my own voice through the written word. I learned to empathize with others because I loved books so deeply that I was able to live in them, experiencing what the characters experienced. Today, as when I was a kid, I derive great pleasure in playing cards and board games and make believe. The things of my childhood shaped who I am today.
Texting, Facebook, and Twitter had no role in my childhood.
As I look ahead to the childhood my kids will experience over the next 15 years or so, I see a different reality. And it is that — a reality. Social media is a reality. Smartphones and texting and video games are a part of our existence now, for both parents and children. I don’t expect my husband and I to pack it up and move out to Amish country, tossing our phones and laptop out the window on the way (tempted though we may be at times).
But I do expect that we will give our children something like what we had — a childhood free from tech devices and social media, at least for the next several years.
It might be easy to understand why we won’t give our 3-year-old and 5-year-old children access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and texting. But educational video games, computer programs, and smartphone/tablet apps? My answer is still — NO.
You Say Potato, I Say Pervasive, Excessive, Intrusive, Harmful
Technology is marketed as the key to everything for kids: playing, learning, growing. It can seem like there’s an inevitability about kids and tech, and we’d better just get on board. But some still believe that Info Tech and childhood do not belong together.
Be it a computer, tablet, phone, or some other technological device that uses and provides data and information, Info Tech is everywhere, including libraries, classrooms, and living rooms. And it’s in the hands and faces of even our littlest ones.
- Libraries now offer storytimes that utilize iPads and apps, all geared for 2-4 year olds.
- The Department of Education has invested $30 million in a company called “Amplify,” which has designed tablet devices (think iPad) for use in public school classrooms around the country. Only now is the question being asked, “Now that we’re doing this, what does this do to our kids?’”
- According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there should be no television or screen time for children under the age of 2. No TV, no YouTube videos, no finger-paint games on a smartphone.
- One or two hours is the maximum limit for screen time for children over 2 (this includes all forms of media and screens), yet we know that a lot of kids are spending seven hours and more on screens a day.
As parents, it can be easy to give apps, certain TV shows, video games, and computer games a pass when considering the recommended screen limits — “My kids learn so much!” “It’s educational!” “My son is so good at it!” “It’s how my daughter learned her ABCs!” (I know I felt that way about PBS Kids.)
But the reality is this: You and I and everyone else who came before this generation of children learned all of that stuff without those devices. Board games, puzzles, songs, and nursery rhymes were once the means to exploring early learning in our homes.
Instead of trusting ourselves and our abilities as parents, we have been fooled into believing that our children learn best when they are using devices that disguise learning in the mask of digital images and games. As if our children would either be bored or fall behind without these magical screens that captivate their attention and teach them school concepts without them even knowing it.
But in doing so, we’re demeaning, and even destroying, our children’s natural inquisitiveness and imagination.
Over-scheduled, over-worked, over-loaded, over-stimulated
We can have a hard time seeing the problem with too much tech and media, but the truth is that it is causing our kids to miss out on something that many of us had — unscheduled, unstructured time.
If kids are getting computer, TV/DVD, smartphone, and video game time each day, it is detracting from their pool of free time that could be spent creating Shakespearan sagas in the back yard, building cardboard castles and cushion forts in the living room, or just alone in their rooms with their imagination, paper and pen, a box of blocks or dolls, or just daydreaming.
Most children’s days are already scheduled with school, homework, after-school activities, and at-home responsibilities of some kind. Add in at least one hour of TV and one hour of video/computer games (educational or otherwise), and you have very little time left over for unstructured, free play. Let’s break it down:
24 hours a day
- 9 hours sleep (more or less depending on their age)
- 7 hours school (at least)
- 2 hours after-school (homework, activities, practice)
= 6 hours
- 2 hours for dinnertime, bathing, and any family chores
= 4 hours
- 1 hour TV
= 3 hours
- 1 hour computer/video game time
= 2 hours
This sample schedule leaves only two hours for time alone and reading and playing and and being outdoors. (And if kids are “old enough” for things like texting, tweeting, and friending… they have even less free time than that.) Where does the time come from for playing, riding a bike, just being a kid?
The things that were once definitives of childhood are reduced to scraps. Is that what we want for our kids? Is that what we had?
The More We Get Together
As an adult who loved her childhood and who spends her days at home with little ones now, I grieve the loss of childhood to tech. I want my children to know the feel of dandelion fluff on their noses and the sound and smell of popcorn sizzling on the stove. I want them to experience the patience of nature as we wait for our green bean seeds to sprout. I want them to know the way the sun shines in the kitchen in the morning and the warmth of being snuggled up on the couch with a blanket and a book. I want us to sing together.
A lot of the songs we share together are the ones sung by Raffi. He’s a favorite person of mine, in real life and online. His most recent work is in advocating for social media reform in his book, Lightweb Darkweb. In it he writes, “Reforming social media without delay is critical. Without reform we doom ourselves to distraction, tweeting on the new Titanic.”
He also believes in letting children experience the world apart from the lure of “shiny tech.” He recently posted, “some people now actually take as a given that young children are tech savvy, see this as something to cheer. i side with child [development] authors & psychotherapists who caution that early screen time can be harmful to brain development. especially for the very young. “
A hashtag he created on Twitter has inspired me as I spend my days with Ainsley and Thaddeus: #InfoTechCanWait. I think about it often as we go through our day. It helps me notice the little moments that make up the great memories of childhood: flying kites, playing with puppets, chatting over our afternoon snacks.
#InfoTechCanWait serves to remind all of us–parents, grandparents, educators, and neighbors–that we are called to create a hedge around our kids, protecting them from the inherent urgency of tech that pushes too much, too fast, too soon.
Instead, we can offer our children real-world experiences… through play and in nature, and do it together, without smartphones and tweeting. A gift of our time, our affection, and our undivided attention. That’s what our kids really need.
“Let’s find out what makes children healthy, and do all we can to give that to them.” –Fred Rogers
What are your warmest, best childhood memories? In what ways can Info Tech and social media wait in your own home? For more information and ideas, I highly recommend The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationship in the Digital Age.