Saturday, March 02, 2013

Mud And Sticks And Real Paint

I've written a couple times here about young children and screens. The post about television remains one of my most read pieces here of all time, probably because I included links to things like research and data and other science-y stuff to support my assertion that TV use by young children should be strictly limited. Still, despite the support of nearly every pediatrician in the world, lots of people got mad at me. In fact, even though I wrote it over a year and a half ago, I still receive irate comments from people who really, really support putting their kids in front of the TV.

The more recent post was a visceral reaction to a currently running TV/web commercial that makes it almost seem like you'd be a bad parent to not hand your kid the latest screen-based technology. Fewer folks got mad at me, but of course it wasn't as widely read as the TV post, and didn't link to any research or data or other science-y stuff.

That's because there isn't really any research or data or other science-y stuff other than the statistic that "(t)hirty-nine percent of children ages 2- to 4-years-old and 52% of kids ages 5 to 8 have used an iPad, iPhone or similar touch-screen device to play games, watch videos or use other apps, according to a survey last year by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group," a number that has likely increased dramatically in the intervening 12 months. Another study by a marketing agency called Kids Industries found that 77 percent of parents believe that using tablets is beneficial for children and the same number believe the gadgets help develop creativity.

And that's what makes me nervous: the iPad was only introduced in 2010 and there hasn't been time to study the effects on young children. There are some researchers out there warning that use of this technology will lead to developmental and social problems. Others are more sanguine. But no one really has anything other than dribs and drabs and anecdotes upon which to base their opinion. And parents are sort of in the same boat, comparing their previously held opinions and knowledge with their own child's experience. What we can all agree upon, however, is that a child's brain develops quickest during the first few years of life, forming thousands of synapses during those first 3 years. So this is not something to be taken lightly.

I hope we can also agree that whatever one's belief about these technologies, and that's what we have to go on right now, this generation of children is being used by the rest of society as guinea pigs because we just don't know what is happening to their brains, let alone their social skills or ability to function in a 3-dimentional world.

Almost every day a parent asks me about my opinion on this topic. Almost every day I receive a pitch asking Teacher Tom to support this or that new "educational" app. Almost every day I read something about how someone's child learned the alphabet or how to identify their colors or something from their touch-screen game.

Of course, every child who has ever come to Woodland Park over the past decade has arrived as a 2-year-old already knowing most of that stuff without the benefit of special technology, so it really doesn't follow, as some are advocating, that every child in America should have her own iPad. After all, these machines are still primarily limited to teaching tools of the worksheet and testing variety like correctly identifying numbers or mooing at a picture of a cow. I've not seen much that convinces me that these apps and games do anything by way of giving children the opportunity to learn how to learn, which, you know, is the essence of education. The "education" delivered looks a lot to me like a fancy version of flash cards.

But this is just one man's opinion, one formed from anecdote, incomplete experience, and guessing, just like everyone else does. I own an iPhone which I use for phone calls, texting, email, navigating around unfamiliar areas, taking pictures, and reading things on the internet. I like it, although I can't honestly say I've ever considered my experiences particularly educational. My wife owns both an iPad and an iPad Mini, both of which I've used a couple of times, but I don't currently have a desire to have one of my own. The most advanced "technology" we use in our classroom are things like hot plates, electric race cars, and, rarely, a CD player . . . Yes, a CD player.

Of course, I know that many of the kids I teach are swiping and drilling on their parent's devices because this is the technology hub of Seattle and they sometimes talk about them, or I overhear parents enthusing about some children's app or other. Like I wrote in my last post on technology, I'm sure the kids are learning something, but by no means are they learning everything, or even close to everything. In the meantime, my advice is to be conservative when it comes to this new technology. I like this article's suggestion that parents play these games with their children, instead of using it as a "shut up" toy. Remember that the most popular preschools in Silicon Valley, where these things are being made, are ones that focus on mud and sticks and real paint. Know that when you hand your baby your smartphone, you are taking part in a grand society-wide experiment, the findings of which are entirely unknown: you could be doing extreme good or extreme harm and anyone who tells you they know which are wrong. I know we won't stop this technology, nor do I even think we should try, so we all need to make some sort of peace with it because it will become an increasingly central part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, as long as I'm the teacher, Woodland Park will continue to be a touchscreen free oasis, because while the actual data on this new technology and children is still decades away from being in, the evidence is clear and irrefutable about what we do in our play-based, hands-on, child-directed preschool, and it has been for centuries. I will not judge what people chose to do with their own children in their own homes, but here we'll continue working with mud and sticks and real paint. The children will experiment, but they will not be experimented upon.

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craigr said...

Great post Tom, as usual. I must admit that I am an avid iPad user, but also find the prospects of kids working with mud, sticks and real paint equally appealing. Which is why I feel we must consider the benefits and limitations of both new and conventional media and technologies when deciding what is best for young learners (or older ones for that matter). There are times when using an app may make sense, and there are times when the school’s library, a No.2 pencil, or mud, sticks and paint might better suit students’ needs and the learning situation. In the end, whatever materials or technologies are brought to bear on the creative learning process, children must learn to use the tools they have available to think, to imagine, to create, to take on the impossible, to play with ideas, to explore, and to feel what it means to be human. All of which, you seem to do so well.

Sarah said...

I really appreciate your comments on technology. My 3 year old loves angry birds and I feel it is more a marketing thing than anything else. He has no means of playing the game in our house as I prefer the conservative approach to technology. He has played it on friends devices. We did however build a 3 foot tall sling shot for the backyard so he and his friends could launch sopping wet sponges at towers built out of boxes. We have some great shots of the kids working together to build towers and taking turns with the sling shot. the bigger kids also enjoyed having the sponges launched at them in the warm weather. Anyway, thanks again for your blog and all your thoughts.

Katie said...

What bothers me the most are parents who believe that exposing their children to tablets somehow gives their kids a leg up when it comes to understanding technology. The wonderful thing about tablets is that they they are incredibly simple and user friendly. I have no doubt that a 7 year old with little experience with screens could figure out how to use a tablet within minutes.

While this is merely anecdotal, I have a friend who gave her son his own tablet at the age of 4. My son and I used to get together with this family pretty regularly. One reason we're seeing less of them is because my friends son spends the entire time we're at his house bouncing between watching television, his tablet and playing video games. When we get together with them away from all of these devices (like my home) her boy seems painfully awkward. I realize this is just one child but it breaks my heart to see this taking place.

Anonymous said...

My older son really enjoyed playing with his Thomas trains. When his little brother was born when he was almost 5, someone gave him a battery powered engine. After that he just wasn't interested in driving his trains around any more. I really cursed that battery powered train. My observation of kids is that all of the electronic gadgets seem to discourage hands on play. However....when electronics are not an option kids will return to digging holes, dripping paint, making pillow forts from couch cushions, etc....
Last month I took a ride on the ferry to Seattle. The view of the Seattle skyline, the water, and sky makes the ferry ride really scenic and enjoyable. But in looking around at the passengers I saw that almost everyone was tuned in to their smartphones or other computer devices. They weren't talking to the people around them or looking at the view.
Screen use has become so pervasive, and kids are not surprisingly imitating the folks around them. If it wasn't for computers...I might not be reading this post. I have to admit, that I definitely enjoy the benefits of access to "screens". I tend to use screens for communication and access to professional learning communities. My kids and their friends tend to use screens for entertainment whether that's watching funny clips on youtube or playing games. We all need balance, and time to enjoy literally smelling the roses or the rain, and connecting to the people in our lives face to face.
I sincerely hope that parents of young children will not only limit the children's screen time, but their own!

Carrie said...

Where I work, we have a few classrooms that are part of the research you talk about... There are companies that believe that computers, iPads and these programs are going to save the world and teach our children everything. If the researcher can prove with these two groups that this works she's in the process of writing a grant to expand the research. I'm sure she'll get the grant as well since this is a hot topic. I agree with you though that real life experiences are most important for our youngest children.

Gramerly said...

As a teacher, devastated by the current way off demands on the classroom in my state, I salute you for your stand. By the time the students will need this technological experience to do wild and wonderful things in the world, it will be completely outdated. As mentioned already, any kiddo brought up to think and experiment can pick up whatever is available and run with it.